Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Death of Rituals

A disturbing trend has emerged in regards to death and how we deal with it -- or not deal with it as the case may be. Time and time again I find myself faced with a grieving family, who proceed to inform me that the deceased did not wish to have a service, (specifically told the family to NOT have a service when they die!). I have also encountered many people who have lost someone close to them, but for medical reasons they are not able to attend the memorial service, or perhaps cannot afford to attend if it is out of the city, or the roads are too bad.               
                                                                                     A picture of Memorial Gardens at R-W

In times of grief, people are often not prepared and feel lost in regards with what to do next. Some people reach out to religious communities, but most people now a days, turn to a funeral home or nothing at all. Funeral homes are much better at advertising then churches are.

I can't help but wonder people actually understand what a faith community can offer them in times of need? How do we, the leaders, in faith institutions address the myth that funeral service are simply to ensure that someone's soul gets to heaven? How do we get the message out that churches are open to working with families and can provide them with a structure to alleviate the stress and provide comfort and peace?

Memorial services and death rituals are for the people left behind, just as much if not more so then the people who have passed away. When we lose someone we need to find away to move through the grieving process, we need to find a way to address the hole that is left after a loved one dies. We need to find closure, to acknowledge that this person will not exist in the same way in our life anymore. But this still doesn't explain why more and more people have decided to not have a service.

So why are people choosing to have no service after they die?
Here is a list of reasons I have heard over the past 10 years in ministry:

  • It is too expensive, not worth the cost
  • No one will come, I've out lived everyone I know.
  • I don't want people crying over me or creating a fuss. 
  • I don't like to be the center of attention.
  • Funerals are always so depressing and dreary.
  • I want people to remember as I lived not as a dead person.
  • It seems like all we do these days is attend funerals, people should just have a party instead. 
  • I don't want the family to have to plan a whole service and is too much work for them, and will be too stressful for them.
  • I'm worried the family will fight.
  • My family is not religious, they wouldn't know what to do or ask for, or know what I would want. 
There are others of course, but these are the most common. 
So why do we need rituals? Why have a funeral?
David Chidester, the author of the book "Patterns of Transcendence; Religion, Death and Dying" writes, "Death rituals are rites of passages that symbolize a change from one state of existence to another, from life to death. In this regard, death rituals can be compared to other rites of passage - birth, adulthood, and marriage -- that symbolically mark a change from an old status to a new status in the life cycle....Death rituals bridge that transition period in which the person is not recognized as living, yet not fully incorporated into the world of the dead." p. 33-34.

To put it another way, people need rituals because people need to have a safe place to express their grief and sadness while sharing their loss with others - they need to have a place where they are giving permission to express their sadness, a place where someone one shows them how to express grief. A funeral, or memorial service give people a structure to follow and meaningful actions which will allow them to honour and remember the person who has died, to tell their stories, and to express how much this person meant to them. 

What I find interesting, is that as a North American culture we are much better at sharing in our grief when someone famous dies, or when there is a major tragedy in the world. People gather on the streets, place objects on the site of the tragedy or the place where the famous person was born. People light candles and hold vigils in times like these. When famous people die we create documentaries, or write books, or make a movie about their life. People want to know more about the person who died.  

People who aren't famous are just as interesting! And people who knew them and loved them still want to know more, still discover things about their friends and families that they didn't know. 

We see death on TV and in social media all the time, yet we ignore a crucial part of the transition and closure. After the person has died, we simply want to move on, we hide the messiness and awkwardness and sadness that comes with seeing and burying a dead body. What are we so afraid of? Some people have actually told me that they don't want to talk about their funeral plans because it might jinks them, it will give them bad luck. Some people avoid talking about death because they don't want their loved ones to give in. 

My question is this: Why do we make it so hard on our loved ones after we die? Why do we render them helpless in their time of need? I find it sad that people are left to their own devices to grieve. Some isolate themselves, not willing and not knowing how to express their sadness. People spend a lot of energy trying to hide their tears, trying to demonstrate that they are strong, and independent. Some of us hesitate to reach out to the grieving family because we don't want to bother them. Some of us who are grieving do not want to burden others with our sadness and depression. 

What I have learned is that sharing stories about the person we have lost and talking about them is essential. Witnessing the ritual of  burying the remains and gathering together to remember people makes the transition more real. Death rituals help us accept that the person will no longer be there with us, and the rituals help us to incorporate our loved ones and friends into a new reality, the spiritual realm. Rituals give intention to actions, and require that we face the truth. Rituals in community provide a way for people to reach out to one another and both give and receive support. 
Invite everyone to take some time to consider what your wishes are for when you die, and I hope you will all say YES to having a service -- look at it as the celebration of a life that has been lived! It is just as important as the day you were born and every year that your birth was celebrated!

Written by Rev. Karen Bridges

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Saying No to say Yes! Make room for what matters and support our best selves!

Spirited Saturdays is a series on Christian life needing boundaries.

We are exploring how to maintain healthy, clear boundaries through maturing, self care, acceptance of our limitations and God's grace!

 Here is the presentation from the first week: Saying No to say Yes!


Monday, June 12, 2017

Rev Karen goes on Sabbatical

August 1 – October 31, 2017
In The United Church of Canada ministers are eligible to go on a three-month Sabbatical after working in a congregation for 5 years. As this is my 7th year here at Robertson-Wesley, it is time to engage a spiritual practice of Sabbath. The term sabbatical actually is derived from the biblical word Sabbath which serves an ancient human need to build periods of rest and rejuvenation into a lifetime.  A sabbatical is simply getting an extended leave from work to pursue a break from one’s regular duties.
During the month of August, I will be spending my time reading, and doing some creative dramatic writing which I don’t usually have space or energy to do. I hope to have some dramatic pieces to share in worship when I’m back, and perhaps a play for the theatre (I have a play that is 1/3 done, it would be nice to finish it.)
In September I plan to unplug from the world. I will be heading to Botswana and South Africa to go on Safari. I will commune with nature, while living a very simple life. I’m looking forward to seeing the animals in their own habitat while looking up at the stars at night in all their abundance. I will take lots of pictures, and I will not have my phone with me… (I may have a mild addiction).
Upon returning in October I will spend my time exploring and applying for different grants that the church might be eligible for so that we can continue to grow and explore new ministries here at Robertson-Wesley.

A time of Sabbath is really an opportunity to make space for God to move in my life. In order to make space, I will need to let go of a few things that keep me busy, and instead I will also spend my time being present to the simple rituals of life, like a proper cup of tea, reading a book, playing the guitar and singing, a run in the river valley, a round of golf with my father, the preparation of food! (I never have time for this one.) It will be strange to not be around all of you, day in and day out, but know that I will look forward to returning to you all, spiritually full and ready to continue what God is calling us to do. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Answering the Call: For God and Country

Eighteen. Just finished high school. A time when a pretty young girl’s head is embroidered with visions of sugar plums, thoughts of an endless future, a lacy wedding dress, a fine young husband, and a wee house with a white picket fence. And later, the pitter patter of little feet and delicious gales of laughter in a home filled with joy, with pies on the windowsill and the aroma of fresh baked bread wafting about. Instead, all she had taken for granted was forfeited. Selflessly forfeited. And she boarded a train for the west coast, watching the apple orchards whizzing by to the rhythm of the metal wheels on the tracks. It was 1944. Food was rationed. Nothing was to be wasted. All must be sacrificed for the war effort. She’d already see many of the boys from school return home, injured, some of the wounds not visible to the naked eye. Where did she find the courage to say goodbye to all she had ever known? To fearlessly step into an uncharted future to fight to preserve the freedom that had always been a given in our nation? This small town girl was soon in the big city, with many young girls from all over Canada, undergoing the rigors of military training. No more leisurely afternoon teas at the old café on Main Street. No trips to the swimming hole on a lazy hot summer afternoon with sandwiches and lemonade in a sack. No weekend dances at the church hall. She was now one of a troop of young women, marching in perfect cadence, their faces steely with resolve. She would never go back home to the idyllic Okanagan valley, her life leading her in a totally different direction. She made a difference. This shy and gentle Christian girl, found within herself the mettle to do what had to be done. She forged ahead and never looked back. She went on to accomplish many good. things in her life. Her faith in God and her values and ethics served her well all through life to this very day. She’s here every Sunday, just over there in the background. More than seventy years later, she is still that shy and gentle soul. When she greets you, the kindness and compassion emanate from within. She instinctively knows when you need some caring words, or a gentle hug. She has always known what needs doing. And today, she sits in a pew, quietly remembering. Anonymous

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Don't You Want to do Better?

“Don’t you want to do better”?

This was the phrase uttered by conductor, Dr. Jonathan Griffiths, while he was addressing the massed choir we participated in, preparing for our Carnegie Hall debut in New York City. At the time, it was applicable to getting a bunch of amateur choristers to do their absolute best, but it struck me that this is a question for all musicians, and indeed all volunteers and staff in the church to ask themselves on a regular basis. Don’t you want to do better?

I’ve had lots of conversations over the years with church folk. Some are perplexed why I still need to practice, that perhaps I should know how to just play anything. Some are surprised that I would go to conferences and learning events, because they have this strange idea that I might know it all already. Nope!

Many employees or volunteers in the church are life-long learners. For me, engaging in learning is really important, because I will never “know it all”. There is always something to learn from my colleagues, from reading, from listening to concerts and recordings, from going to workshops and masterclasses, from searching for new music, etc. Admittedly it shocks me when I find out that there are musicians out there who at some point stop “studying”. Don’t you want to do better? And, here’s the epitome for me, in a church setting - Don’t you want to give your best to God and to the people that you serve? As staff or volunteers, doesn’t God deserve 100% effort?

Last Sunday, I played really poorly. There were many reasons why, including much distraction by the pets there for blessing, lots of enthusiastic children, several wonderful new choristers, last minute requests, but those are just excuses for why I didn’t do my best. I was prepared, organized, had practiced, and yet, there were things that went astray. It felt like I didn’t give my best to God. Thank goodness this doesn’t happen very regularly! So, after the service, I thought, ok, get up, shake off the dust and strive to do better next week. After all, don’t I want to do better?

Tammy-Jo Mortensen,
Music Director

Monday, January 18, 2016

Music as a Meditative Practice

I went to the Taizé service that Robertson-Wesley hosted in November.
It was the first Taizé service that I had been to in a long time. And after the first chant, all the memories of why I love this style of service came flooding back to me. I used to attend Taizé services quite often, when I was in the midst of my undergrad degree. In those days, walking in to the quietness of the space, I brought in all the stresses and burdens of balancing school, jobs, and family. At the end of the hour-long contemplative service, I would walk out renewed, feeling a bit like a puddle – completely relaxed and lightened to start a new week with fresh eyes and a refreshed soul. 

What is it about a Taizé service that would achieve this rejuvenation in one short hour? Is it the dimness? The calm and quiet? The music? The heartfelt prayers contributed by anyone who wishes to pray aloud? The reading(s) in various languages? Perhaps it is all those things in combination? Of course, for a musician, the music plays a big part in any service. The simplicity of the Taizé chants, with repetition, often with a mélange of languages and harmonies is soothing for many. You can easily fit into the harmony, close your eyes and just sink into the text and the music in a different way than you can with a multi-verse, more complex hymn. I love complex music too, but this renewed experience of attending a Taizé service made me think again about the experience of music in worship. It got me thinking about other music for services which is simple but not simplistic.

Immediately a few centres that have created this style of music leapt to mind. Consider the short pieces of the Iona Community, many of which we have used at Robertson-Wesley in Sunday morning services. These minatures can act in the same manner that the Taizé chants do. They are short and carry a single message, can be used liturgically at specific points in the service, and can be easily linked to a theme, readings or sermon.

Thanks to Rev. Stephen Johann, a United Church minister here in Edmonton, I was recently introduced to the music of St. Lydia’s. This church was begun in 2008, and now meets in a storefront in Brooklyn, NY. It is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and supported by the Episcopal Church. Some of the criteria for the music used in their services is that it is simple and can be taught easily, learned by ear, and can bear repetition. They also want to make sure that the music is communal, that it represents their theological language, and doesn’t require accompaniment to “work”. They have a song-book, and music is taught by a song-leader, but the congregation goes “paperless” to spend time sinking into the music and communicating with one another.

Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is located in San Francisco, CA. While it follows some of the same parameters of the above worshipping communities, and most of the music is done without accompaniment of any sort, a variety of musical styles is intentionally chosen with a range of eras and styles in every service. They have a number of composers within their congregation that contribute to the repertoire of music used at St. Gregory’s. This is perhaps closer to our style at Robertson-Wesley. Any music, regardless of era or style is considered for use, as long as it fits with the theme, scripture, season or message of the service.

The conclusion that I came to in looking at all these centres for worship, is that there are many common threads in how they speak about music for worship. They all use melodies and texts from various parts of the world, and sing often in languages other than English. While some of these communities use longer hymns that carry more than one image, they all use shorter chants and repetitive pieces. They are all thinking deeply about language and theology, and how to involve people in communal music-making. Amen!

The next Taizé service at Robertson-Wesley will be Sunday, October 16, 2016 from 7-8 pm in conjunction with the Koinonia group.

For more information on each centre of worship:
Taizé -
Iona -
St. Lydia’s -
Gregory of Nyssa -

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Creating Together

Recently, this quote really caught my eye (and brain):
"If you would like to establish a connection with people from another culture, it's always good to offer a few gifts as a gesture of friendship. But, an even better way to forge a lasting bond is by creating something together. Whether it's a meal, an art project, or just a spontaneous dance party, when you create with others, you build a connection that lasts a lifetime."
- From "The Social Synapse"
by Nora Epinephrine & Sarah Tonin
Upon looking up this quote – the two "authors" are fictitious, as is the “book” it’s quoted from - but the quote is still certainly worthy of thought. The quote is an item that the "Blue Man Group" puts up on the screen before every performance.
It got me thinking – how does this quote have meaning for the church?  How does it relate to being an intercultural church?  How do we offer a few gifts of friendship? 
Creating together IS giving a gift - a gesture of friendship.  By committing to creating something together with others, it is giving the gift of oneself.  It is about becoming vulnerable and opening yourself to others. It's also giving a gift to anyone who receives the creation.
Isn’t creating together what we do in worship, in worship arts, in our rehearsals and committees and pods? Even the 100-year-old space which we use to continue to create in has been a team effort – architects, engineers, tradespeople, interior designers, stained glass artists, all coming together to create something of beauty – something that feeds our souls, a place that creates ties that bind us to one another. 
How many of you have been to a camp or a retreat?  Growing up I went to several music camps.  The act of being together with participants from other geographic areas, creating together, and living a shared experience very quickly created relationships that have lasted a lifetime. 
There are several United churches including Robertson-Wesley who have been exploring the connections between the arts and spirituality and how becoming a safe place and creating something together develops strong bonds and deep connections.  Creating together can break down cultural, gender, age, and class barriers.  Using artistic media allows people to explore the deep questions, the longing of their souls, gratitude for this life and their hope for the future. 

The religious philosopher Martin Buber sums up the act of creating:
“We can only understand the true image of God when we live in community with others.  In order to create a true image, God created us in community.  In our very creation, God provides us with the potential for sharing, for reaching out to others, and for creating together with others.  We are most like our Creator, not when we create alone, but when we join others in the act of creation.  God says, “Let us...,” as if to say that in the course of creating together, shaping together, and building together we are acting in the image of God.”[i]

[i] Seymour Rossel,  Bible Dreams: The Spiritual Quest.  New York: S.P.I Books, 2003, p. 37.

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, M. Mus.