Making plans for Lent

January 17th, 2022
Available from MinistryMatters

You have almost six weeks of worship to prepare, before the season of Lent is upon us. But it's time to plan what small groups might study in Lent, coordinating it with your sermons and music. Considering that we will journey through Lent and celebrate Easter for the third time during a pandemic, we have a lot of work to do to truly be ready to rise at Easter.

Lent is often framed as an experience or season of self denial, as we come to terms with our selfish desires and mortaility. We are always summoned during Lent to change our hearts and lives.

Yet too much has changed already. We’ve missed celebrating birthday parties, graduations, wedding anniversaries, even weddings themselves. We’ve watched as people turned on each other in church and society, and we experience heartache as friendships are lost, damaged, even destroyed. Fighting across the aisle has been turned up to a level that borders on uncivilized. What happens in our world tends to make its way through the church, as we watch numbers dwindle, some as a result of relocation or a specific political view, others who have moved from this life into the next. The whole matter of loved ones dying and family and friends not being able to grieve in the usual ways, mourn communally, or mark their passing has slowed down people’s ability to rebound.

Not being able to grieve the losses of the pandemic leaves us stuck, feeling incomplete, and even isolated. Many people died alone, without family or friends to visit, without pastoral calls or prayer. This weighs heavily on churches and their leaders. Grief in and of itself is hard to bear. Weighed down by unprocessed grief, it’s hard for churches to move forward. Indeed, it’s hard for the world to move forward, as we are all grieving something or someone. When mourners are unable to share stories and be comforted by one another or have a place to go long afterwards, it creates a deep sense of displacement.

A May 2020 study on grief published in Psychiatry stated, “Funeral and burial rituals are important for the affective adjustment of people grieving the loss of a loved one and mourners who drew comfort from planning and participating in the funeral were shown to achieve better outcomes in later grief. From this perspective, being prevented from holding a proper funeral for their loved ones might prevent COVID-19 mourners from gaining awareness of the reality of the death and from understanding and framing their loss, besides eliminating a significant important occasion of social support.”

Preparing for Lent

How does the church move on from this extended grief? Use the time between now and Lent to chart a path. Herre are five ways that you can help your congregation move forward.

1. Consider the Jewish traditions for grieving. In traditional Judaism, funerals happen as soon as possible after a death occurs, and the following week is spent solely at home with family and members of the faith community. Customary prayers are recited daily to honor the dead. This week is intended to focus on accepting loss and to encourage healing. A longer, formal mourning process lasts 30 days, where mourners slowly reintegrate themselves into the world. Prayers continue to be recited daily. If a parent is lost, this formal mourning lasts eleven months. In the eleventh month, an unveiling ceremony takes place, wherein the gravestone is revealed. In the years that follow on the anniversary of death, a candle that burns for 24 hours is lit in memory of the deceased. Setting precedence for a longer mourning process will help those that are grieving create expectations and know that they are not leaving their loved ones behind.

2. Draw comfort from your faith, focus on your wellbeing, and set boundaries. As church leaders, we’re sometimes expected to have all the answers. I’m sure you’ve had members of of the congregation and community ask how they are supposed to navigate these times. You may be lost, feeling like you’re trying to figure that out, too. Not having all the answers can make you feel inadequate, or like you aren’t doing “enough.” This feeling of not doing enough isn’t true. Trying to do everything only leads to burnout and emotional fatigue.

3. Acknowledge that we are living in a different time. Be resourceful with how you can bring people together. Now, more than ever, it is so important that we make social connections a priority and a routine. The online video-conferencing platforms are great for bringing people together, while still maintaining social distance.

4. Create emotionally safe spaces, such as a Lenten small group experience (online or hybrid) for people to share their hurt without feeling judged. Do your best to listen to those who feel comfortable enough to share these deeply personal feelings with you. Oftentimes, listening and truly being present is more consoling than offering advice or explanation.

5. Encourage those whom you support to create their own rituals. Journaling, prayer, doing activities that remind them of their loved ones, or planting a tree in their memory are healthy and effective ways for others to express their feelings and continue in the healing process.

We aren’t able to fix everything lost, but we do have the power to change certain things. These changes will make a difference in how our congregations and communities experience and grapple with grief over loss.  Addressing these losses during Lent will prepare people to rise for the resurrection.

Consider the forthcoming 2022 book, Growing the Post-Pandemic Church, from Rebekah Simon-Peter.

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