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  • Betsy Singleton Snyder

Keep Doing Rituals, Somehow


I want to let you in on a big secret. Rituals are very important. I'd go so far as to claim rituals are part of what makes us human. Whether you are a Christian, or another faith tradition, or nothing, the rituals matter. Doing the customs, liturgies and habits anchor us, but, too often, let's confess we have been so busy that we have merely flown through them. Now, I see people grieving the expected and normal rituals we have been taking for granted. In this time of covid-19, what if we renew more intentionally our "sacred" practices? At the least, what if we re-connect in new, yet familiar ways to show how important we are to one another?

I was thinking about my baby book, which is a light yellow, satin keepsake. The title on the cover is, Baby Milestones. I thumbed through it often as a child to see my first lock of cut hair, and what my parents said when I was born. I had no idea what "milestones" were, that they referred literally to a roadside marker that lists the distance to the next location.

Yet where are the markers for what we are living through now, and what will we do when we get to the next one? We improvise the rituals.

Let me offer an example. A clergy friend wrote her pregnant daughter a real-live letter because it became clear she would not be able to travel out of state for the birth. In the letter, the mother told the daughter about all the wonderful things she'd done in her life by herself. She cheered her daughter into motherhood with her written words until they could be together in person. She found a way to be there until she could meet her first grandchild face-to-face. Her daughter will surely cherish that letter for the rest of her life.

So what of all the other celebrations, moments, events? Grandparents can't go to their grandchildren's birthday parties, or even hug them, embrace them. Children can't play together, so no more gatherings with cake. Drive-by parties are a thing, and FaceTime is a gift for long distance families. I noticed on my social media that one stellar husband located a cabin for his wife's birthday; it offered a 24-hour getaway nearby, and thrilled his spouse with their alone time, while they enjoyed new scenery. Some families are paying photographers to get a picture of them together on their porch or in their yard, commemorating this time together.

Couples cannot go out to dinner to celebrate anniversaries, but they are learning to Zoom and toast with friends virtually. Some get curbside at their favorite restaurant. I've seen pictures of couples wedding-day photos on social media. Yet what of the weddings coming up, whether to postpone or alter the plans in some way that is meaningful? Choices will depend on what matters most to couples.

Proms, graduations, and all sorts of spring concerts have been cancelled, or altered. Some seniors are creating yearbooks on Instagram. My 8th-grader is also missing some significant moments of his jump toward high school, and his birthday happens to be at the end of May. During our self-quarantine, we selected sentimental t-shirts he's outgrown, some old, some from school. A friend's daughter made him a quilt, and he loves it.

And then what about the excruciatingly painful parts of life that beg for ritual?

Recently, I officiated at a graveside with a small number of people present, most everyone was wearing a mask, and it was so hard for the grieving relatives not to touch one another.

Virtual services take time to plan, but can be done. Services online can be beautiful, and can be healing. Listen to "A New Way to Mourn" from the podcast, The Daily.

Even so, what if the death occurred from covid-19. What if our beloved was in a hospital alone? Perhaps we got to see them through FaceTime, or say some kind of goodbye virtually, but what if we didn't? There is no substitute for the laying on of hands and touch. Thankfully, there are medical professionals trying to arrange FaceTime for the families and bring familiar photos for the patients. Dedicated professionals are improvising their care beyond medicine.

Then there are those struggling to be innovative in business, to look at the finances, to get a loan or PPP, to figure out how to keep the dream afloat. It seems one day an employee is waiting tables, or prepping food to be served, and the next day, the restaurant is closed. A team of people is deconstructed, split apart. Both job loss and the loss of co-workers involve grief.

Not only is a job lost; sometimes, a landmark is gone. I heard that the 87-year old Austin, Texas restaurant, Threadgill's, closed forever. It was opened in 1933 as a gas station and beer

bar by Kenneth Threadgill. Rock, soul and blues icon Janis Joplin got her start at Threadgill's. It supplied jobs, stories, and history with which we associate such gathering places that are more than businesses; they are who we are. I'm not sure how we will say goodbye to the landmarks that have made our memories. Do we put out flowers, signs, and cards in front that say "Goodbye," and "Thank you for all the good times"?

Rituals are often connected to our spirit life, from birth to death and everything in between. Rituals are the milestones of everyday life. Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of an altar in the world, a way in which we can see the sacred in the ordinary parts of life, but the ordinary is certainly strung together by milestones, recognizing how to welcome, how to say goodbye, how to celebrate love.

I'm moving to a new church July 1 to serve as a senior pastor again. That usually involves a goodbye and a hello, one sad, the other happy. And yet, how am I supposed to say goodbye in the midst of a pandemic to those with whom I've been serving? How can I personally thank and tell the people I've gotten to know and love for the last four years that I will miss them when I can't get physically near them, or gather with them, not even to worship? How will I tell them how appreciative I am that they have taught me even more about Christian faith and life? I doubt there will be anyway to have an in-person goodbye. I'm not even certain I'll have an in-person hello with members of my new church.

I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm going to create a ritual to interpret and embrace this milestone, somehow, even in a pandemic. Maybe I'll leave flowers at the door, maybe I'll do a video, or maybe I'll just post this blog with love.

Be safe. Be creative.

Quilt: Betsy Singleton Snyder; Photo of Threadgill's: Austin American Statesman


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