By Carol Penner
Worship is the way we gather to celebrate our common faith. In worship we talk to God about who we are; in worship we discover who God is calling us to be. When there is violence in our world, we need to be talking about it to God in worship.
We can encourage the church to talk about abuse in our worship services. Many congregations regularly pray for governments, for homeless or hungry people or for those who suffer from war. We can also pray for children who have been sexually or physically abused or people who have been assaulted by their partners.
We can pray for men who have or are assaulting women and children. We can pray for support workers in counselling centres, health facilities and shelters. We can pray for governments to make wise policy decisions and to protect the vulnerable. These prayers remind the congregation that we are called to help create a peaceful world where people can live free of abuse.
Suggestions for worship service on themes of abuse:
- Many congregations have found it helpful to devote one worship service a year to the context of violence against women. November is Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Canada. Consider helping to plan such a worship service in your own congregation. Alternatively, you might want to organize an ecumenical or inter-faith service in your community.
- Unfortunately, too often there are tragedies in our communities where women or children are brutally murdered or abused. Worship services can provide a space for people to grieve after these events. Alternatively, there may be a new shelter or transition house opening in your community; a worship service can celebrate the hard work of providing spaces for healing.
- We worship God through monetary offerings in the context of worship. Designating the offerings from a worship service to a shelter or program for women or to a Kids Help line sends a strong message to the community about the priorities of the church.
- In choosing music for a service you will want to look for hymns from your hymnbooks that talk about God’s tenderness, Jesus’ compassion, the call to liberation and freedom. Where possible, choose hymns with inclusive language for both people and God. Be sensitive to the words of the hymns, so that they do not contradict the message you are trying to convey in the worship. For example, a hymn that talks about Jesus helping us bear our cross may not illustrate the point that women can leave abusive relationships.
- In planning a worship service, it is helpful to pay attention to the heaviness of the content. Most people come to church to hear good news. Special services consisting primarily of lament are fitting and appropriate, as long as people are aware of the content of the service ahead of time. Regular services should usually include an element of hope. How does God inspire us, comfort us, call us?
Symbols in Worship
Worship is something that we do with our whole body, and it involves all of our senses. Long after the words are forgotten, a visual image can remain fixed in people’s minds. An altar table that reflects the theme of the service can be a powerful addition to the worship experience. Symbols in worship are most effective if they are simple. You may find several ideas appealing, but choose one idea and go with it. Too many symbols are confusing and distracting.
Themes of brokenness and healing
- Display three similar clay pots on the table. One is broken into several large pieces, one is broken but repaired, one is whole.
- Display a cloth that is ripped, with edges that are obviously frayed and jagged. Put this cloth next to a patchwork quilt, because it shows the beauty that can come even from torn cloth.
Themes of bondage and deliverance
- Display two plants. This works best if you choose plants with stems that are bendable and fairly tall, like a small tree seedling. At the beginning of the service, have a very large rock crushing one of the seedlings. Part of the service can involve removing the rock from the seedling. If the rock won’t work, show a plant that is obviously bent and broken, or uprooted, next to a healthy plant.
Themes of mourning and hope
- Candles can be used as a symbol of mourning. The service can begin with lit candles, which are extinguished as you think of lives that have been lost to violence. If this is not a service of mourning, but a regular worship service, it may be important to balance this symbol with one that brings hope.
- Candles can also be used as a symbol of hope. As different victims of violence are named, a candle can be lit in their honour. You can involve the congregation in lighting candles, by having tealights or other candles on the altar, and inviting participants to come and light a candle in memory of someone they know who is affected by violence. The candle can be a symbol of their commitment to pray for this person.
Theme of thankfulness for the work that has begun
- place five loaves of bread and two fish on the altar table (use real fish). Make sure you display them so people can count the loaves and see the fish, so they get the biblical connection! This symbol is a powerful scriptural reminder that God can multiply our small resources to meet the needs we have.
- The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is the historic place for the people of Israel to bring their pain and their prayers to God. In your congregation, a ritual could be offered in which the participants are given the opportunity to bring their pain, their grief, their sadness, and their concerns about abuse to God by means of a symbolic wailing wall.
- This would work best in a service for people who have an understanding of violence against women. It would need to be carefully adapted for a Sunday morning service, as it might be very moving for some, and threatening for others. It would work well for a group of people who have studied violence against women in a workshop.
- Hand out small pieces of paper to the participants. Invite them to reflect on a word, phrase, situation or memory that has caused them grief or sadness, and then to write it down. There is no need for them to name anyone specifically or reveal anything personal. Indicate that the group will be praying over these concerns once they have been put up on the wailing wall.
- Invite them, one by one, to come forward and attach their paper to blank wall you have designated as a wailing wall. If they wish, they may want to read aloud what they wrote.
- After everyone who wants to has participated, have someone lead a prayer for the concerns expressed on the wailing wall and for all those who suffer violence and abuse at the hands of others. The reading of lament Psalms might express the collective pain: Psalm 55, 56, 57, 59, 69.
- Allow time for the participants to absorb the prayer. A musical interlude can be effective during this time.
- Be careful not to move away from the pain too quickly; however, do not let the ritual end in despair. Music or readings from the scriptures or from secular writings which offer hope, affirm God’s presence with us even in our suffering, articulate our longing for peace and harmony, or celebrate what is beautiful and good would be appropriate to conclude the ritual.
*This resource was adapted from a resource called Fire in the Rose, “Resources for Worship and Study”
Poems and prayers
Did I see you?
When I was hungry you broke bread with me.
When I was sick you sat by my bedside.
When I was in prison, you petitioned for my release.
When I was sexually assaulted, you listened to my pain.
When I was afraid to be alone, you stayed with me.
When I felt guilty and ashamed, you told me it was not my fault.
When I had to go to court, you went with me.
When I was filled with anger and hatred, you did not reject me.
When I was filled with sorrow and hopelessness, you held my hand.
When I kept my story secret for years, you understood why.
When I called on God for help, you came and helped me.
Carol Penner, www.leadinginworship.com
Holy and good by Thomas Troeger (this is a hymn with meter 10.10.10.10)
Holy and good is the gift of desire,
God made our bodies for passion and fire,
Intending that love would draw from the flame,
Lives that would shine with God’s image and name.
God weeps for all people abandoned, abused,
God weeps for the women whose bodies are bruised,
God weeps when the gift that God has infused,
is turned from its purpose and brutally used.
God calls to women and God calls to men;
“Don’t hide from terror, or terror will win.
I made you for love, but love must begin
by facing the violence without and within.”
This is My Body
This is my body
an orchard of pomegranates
eyes like doves
lips like a crimson threat
breasts like two fawns
that feed among the lilies
rounded thighs like jewels
hands dripping with myrrh
stately as a palm tree
comely as Jerusalem
This is my body, shared, with you.
This is my body
bone of your bone
flesh of your flesh
sanctifying the marriage bed
bearing the fruit
breasts rounded with babies
stretch marks tracing
the pangs of childbirth
the streams of tears
This is my body, wedded to you.
This is my body
punched, kicked, slapped, bruised
stalked and pillaged
split lip, broken bones,
eyes like shadows
of a civil war
where love is strong as death
and passion fierce as the grace
This is my body, broken by you.
How will you remember me?
From Broken by You: Men’s Role in Stopping Woman Abuse, by Morten Paterson, The United Church Publishing House, 1995.
Prayers by: Carol Penner
A survivor prayer
When family violence devastates a community
Leaving marriage: A survivor’s prayer
Prayer against patriarchy
Psalm for a women’s shelter
Peace prayer for imprisoned people who have sexually offended
Prayer for those committing sexual offences
Prayer for male survivors of violence
Abusing a precious gift
Advent prayer for people living with violence
God save the children
A prayer about terror (on the anniversary of the Montreal Masssacre)
A prayer for when sexual abuse is discovered