Leading Worship For The Grieving
This week I am especially aware of those who have lost someone dear to them over the course of this past year. I am leading the music portion of a service we call the The Empty Chair, a gathering hosted by our church for the comforting of those whose table has one familiar seat empty as the holiday’s pass this year. The service also serves as an opportunity for family members and friends to honor those who we have loved – who are now lost to us in this life.
The Empty Chair
My heart is full for these people, though I am not one of them. I wonder how I would prepare differently if I were. I imagine my dearest ones, my wife, children, siblings, parents, friends, stepping across the divide before me and leaving me to just remember. Only remember. Nothing tangible but artifacts they left behind for my hands to caress.
Each triggers memories. Memories, untamed, flooding the mind with flash glimpses into the past. A shared glance at a meal table. A touch. A hug. A regret surfaces. A longing rises, unmet and hollow. All of this occurs seemingly simultaneously, whipping through our minds and triggering deep physical and emotional changes in our bodies. One day, we had them. Then one day, a day drawn out or suddenly arriving, a last breath is taken, a heart stops, and they are gone from us. Gone from our grasp, from our touch, from our eyes, from our phones, from our gatherings, from our moments precious and mundane. We simply can’t reach them any more. Yet they, somehow, continue to reach us through our memories.
And yet the heart aches. It simply aches. The empty chair at our meal table symbolizes our loss. We can remove it, even reset the table layout, but the space is permanently, irrevocably, empty.
The Way Of Comfort
As a worship leader, pastor, and writer, the theme of “comfort” has always been integral to my way of writing, leading, thinking, and caring. As a pre-teen, my parents had to daily counsel me as I would come home from school, shadowed in a deep sadness and living with the foreboding feeling that one of them, or both of them, would die and leave me alone to wander in a gray world. Perhaps comfort comes to mind so often because I daily live in dire need of it to keep going.
To lead worship, or moments of reflective meditation, will take a few things from me as the musician called upon, with friends, to create this space of comfort and dignity that strengthens the weak in their holiday-heightened sense of loss.
- Quieter, mid-to-slow tempo music will be in order
- Quality, well-rehearsed music enables them to just listen if they prefer not to sing
- Clear words on paper or on a well-designed screen help them understand the words (they can take paper home with them and tack it to their refrigerator)
- Brief Scriptures or prayers interspersed with songs can create a sense of flow
- Acoustic instruments, with either no rhythm or simple rhythm (a cajon instead of a drum kit, or just acoustic guitar giving inside rhythm) honor the more meditative space being created. In our case, we’ll use acoustic guitar, pads/piano, electric guitar (washes and ambience), and 2 voices in harmony. I may integrate a soft hammered dulcimer into the mix. If I had them on-hand, I’d draw on a cellist, and a violinist.
- Familiar hymns and songs of worship, mixed with special pieces
- A one hour service, keeping the gathering short and sweet
- A reception afterward (optional)
- A service plan for the time that integrates symbols (candle lighting, written and spoken names of those we’ve lost), prayers, music, visuals, and other elements serving those in need of comfort
Lead The Way In Comforting Your Community
I encourage you, and your faith community, to lead the way in serving those who have lost loved ones this year in your town or city. Use your best assets to create a space for honoring their loved one, and at the same time encouraging their spirits with moments of meditation and thanks expressed in music.
The holiday season from Thanksgiving through Christmas is an especially difficult time for these treasured families. Serve them with the resources God has given to you.
Dan Wilt, M.Min.