Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Decently and in Order"

There’s a Presbyterian phrase, if ever there was one. We all know stated clerks who have it emblazoned on the covers of their Roberts’ Rules and constitutions. Decent orderliness is highly desired, even if not always achieved.

All of that, however, is not the original context of the phrase. It appeared long before there were parliamentary councils for Christians to worry over. Take a look at 1 Corinthians 14, and you’ll find it at the tail end of a long chapter in which Paul comments on worship. That’s right, worship.

Paul has a lot to say about whether people should or shouldn’t speak in tongues in church, and how if they do someone needs to interpret so the gathered faithful do not sit there in glassy-eyed bewilderment.

Prophesying is a good thing, Paul said, but even that has its limits. Prophets can’t all talk at the same time or it will sound like much ado about nothing.

Then he went on to suggest that women, if they want to speak in church, should stifle it and talk to their husbands when they get home. It was not a popular text for women, it’s safe to guess.

Now the point is not whether you agree or disagree with speaking in tongues, prophesying or women speaking in church. The point is that Paul was admonishing the Corinthians about what happened, or didn’t happen, when they were gathered for worship.

And here’s Paul’s punch-line: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (KJV) God deserves worship that is “decent” and worthy, and that is “orderly” and makes sense.

From the beginning there has been a definite “order” to Christian worship, generally referred to in scholarly parlance as the “Ordo.” Simply, it’s a technical term referring to the four-fold pattern of Christian worship: Gathering, Word, Eucharist, Sending. (See BCW, pp. 33 ff.)

The Ordo came to pass in this way. The first followers of Jesus were Jews as he was, so they continued synagogue worship oriented around Torah, God’s Word. But they had also had unique experiences with Jesus, meals like the Last Supper before he died, and more meals like on the road to Emmaus after he was raised. So they continued to break bread together, giving thanks at the table as they had done with Jesus. And the two, Word and Sacrament, were welded together.

Of course, they started being gathered as a community. But they didn’t do it just because they thought it was a nice idea, or they liked the people, or the speakers were enthralling, even though all of those things may have been true. They were gathered because they sensed a call from God to belong to Christ and one another.

At the other end of their time together they experienced a kind of spiritual shove back into the regular world. No luxury camping out in the community for them. They were sent back to where they came from, sent to follow their risen Lord, sent by the same One who called them in the first place. So that’s the basic outline of worship, the Ordo, the common pattern of Christian worship most everywhere, most all the time the past two millennia.

But the four parts of the Ordo are really not separate things. They constitute a continuum, and Christian worship is an uninterrupted journey from being drawn in together, through hearing the story of God’s gracious love in Jesus Christ and acting out gratitude for God’s blessings, to being sent out the door to follow him wherever he leads. It’s all of a piece. So if any part is lopped off or given short shrift, like celebrating the Lord’s Supper only occasionally, it stops being orderly. And I’d say that’s not decent either. (See my post on “A Birthday Present”.)

How does the “Ordo” play out on Sunday morning where you are? Is everything there that needs to be? Does it flow smoothly? Is the course of the journey clear? Or is it just an “order of worship” lined up like items on an agenda to be gotten through in a timely fashion?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Calvin's Birthday Present

Here's an idea for a birthday present.

For John Calvin, whose 500th birthday we'll celebrate (others may observe, and most will ignore) on July 10--let's have communion in our churches on every Lord's Day. In his own time, Calvin was never able to convince anybody of the necessity of weekly communion and the failure of faith when obedience to the bidding of Christ to take, eat and drink was less frequent. So what a nice gift we Presbyterian and Reformed sorts, not to mention many other sorts, could package up for our noted ancestor if we decided and acted to come to the Lord's Table every Sunday.

If you think that's not likely, you're absolutely right. Why is it that so many Protestant Christians are adverse to frequent communion? Here are some of the reasons I've heard:

1. "If we did it every week, it would lose it's meaning. When we do it just a few times a year, it's more special."

Well, yes, I answer sarcastically. Just like we should reserve displays of affection for our spouses to quarterly or monthly, else they get used to the hugs and kisses and think they're not special.

2. "It's a lot of trouble, with all those cups to fill and clean, and bread to bake and everything."

To which I answer, again sarcastically: We sure wouldn't want to make our worship of God in the least inconvenient.

3. "We don't want to do that. That's what the Catholics do."

My reply, sarcastically one more time: And we don't want to be like, well, like them.

I can't really believe that people in our churches and on our governing boards are as silly as that, so I look around for more sensible reasons for the preference for infrequent communion.

For one thing, most people have forgotten what the Lord's Supper is all about. At the Lord's Table we are fed in order that all of us together may be nurtured and nourished as the Body of Christ, and carry out his ministry in the world. We have allowed the meaning to leak out of it, and for many people it's an empty ritual. In a word, Communion has become boring.

Number two is that we've forgotten about the witness of Scripture, how "breaking of bread" was "steadfastly" observed (Acts 2:42) in the early church, and that Paul testified strongly to the Corinthians about the importance of the sacrament. Another evidence of our corporate biblical illiteracy.

A third factor is undoubtedly the "stiff-neckedness" of Christians in persisting in ways and beliefs contrary to what we all pretty much know is right anyhow. Something there about what they used to call "total depravity."

So those are some reasons for why we don't have weekly communion. And I'm sure others will be able to come up with more. What then are good reasons why we should celebrate the sacrament every week when we go to church?

1. Lord's Day worship is incomplete without it. From the very beginning, the Christian sacrament of the Table was joined to the reading of the sacred scripture to make the unique service of the followers of Jesus. It is the ministry of Word and Sacrament, to which many of us were ordained. The two simply belong together, and one without the other is like trying to clap with one hand.

2. Communion when observed is, among other things, the gift of unity for all the people brought together in the Body of Christ. It is a shared action, a joint effort, a common rejoicing. It makes us the Church.

3. The Lord's Supper is rich in meaning, not just meaning we hear about, but sensual messages of touch and taste and smell that defy description. It is an experience that affects us in ways words do not and cannot.

4. The most powerful and simplest reason is that we were graciously invited by Jesus to come, take, eat and drink--and that invitation, coming from him, is no less than a command to us.

If we did have communion every week--and those who seriously follow this practice know this--we would soon find that we cannot live without it. Just as we cannot live without the hugs and kisses of affection from those we love, so we cannot live without the celebration of the love of Jesus Christ in the sacrament. It is, in fact, a means by which God's grace comes to us. Why would we ever want to ignore it?

It would be a nice present, I think, for John Calvin if we finally came around to weekly communion. Something like a big 500th Birthday hug and kiss for him. What do you think?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Worship As Theater

It was a century and a half ago that Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish existential philosopher-theologian, wrote his "edifying discourse" called Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing. In it he made a critique of Christian worship we'd do well to apply to what goes on in our churches today.

The gist of his criticism is this: Worship is analagous to theater, but we have the various roles and responsibilities confused.

In the theater there are actors, prompters, and an audience. The same functions can be found in the church at worship--conventional church "wisdom" says that the actors are the clergy and other worship leaders, the prompter is God who tells them what to say or sing, and the audience is the congregation sitting passively in the pews watching the performance.

It may be "conventional wisdom," but SK says we've got it all wrong. We need to shift the responsibilities one step around the triangle so that, in church, it comes out like this: the actors are the congregation, the prompters are the clergy and other worship leaders, and God is the audience.

Ah, Søren, where are you now that we need you?

One of the major problems, to my way of thinking, with Christian worship today is the tendency to slip into the worship-as-performance mentality, and busy ourselves with the wrong things.

The platform at the front of the worship space is not a stage. Yet the preacher and singers easily take their places and perform their acts.

Wandering preachers, meandering not only around the worship space but also around their thoughts, tend to become dramatists rather than prophets.

Song leaders who line up across the front, microphones in hand, tapping out the beat of pop-style songs, become players to the congregation instead of encouragers of the congregation.

And the band that clatters and crashes out its music contributes little more than call attention to itself.

Even audio-visual projections on a screen put the congregation into the passive pew-potato mode like they are when watching TV.

Nowhere in the service is this more pernicious than in the proclamation of the Word by preaching. Is the preacher a mere performer, strutting upon the stage? Or is she perhaps a prompter, an encourager of the souls looking up with hope on their faces, hope that they might hear the redeeming word of grace?

There is a diference. A big difference. An effective sermon engages the listeners, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, in order to urge their response to God in renewed commitment to follow Jesus Christ.

SK's point which we should take to heart is that the congregation is doing the worship. "Liturgy," after all, means "the work of the people." Ministers of Word and Sacrament, ministers of music, and all the rest are but hired help, standing helpfully behind the scenes making it possible for the real actors in the drama of worship to do their very best.

If you like a challenge, take this model and hold it up alongside your church's worship service. Is there more performing in front of the congregation than there is praying and praising by it?

You have to remember, that God is the audience of our worship. As SK put it, "God is the critical theatergoer who looks on to see how the lines are spoken...."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Definition of Worship

Back in the 1970s, I attended a conference where James D. Smart, Presbyterian scholar and educator, gave a series of talks on worship. I came away with a definition of his that has proven enormously helpful to me in planning and leading worship, and I offer it here for discussion.

is what happens
when a community,
that has heard God’s call
for a people to serve God,
comes together
to renew its consciousness of that call,
to wait upon God
for the words
of understanding and strength
to obey that call,
and to offer itself
and its resources
in thankfulness to God
for the promise of a future
which always resides in God’s call.

That’s one loaded sentence. Unpack it, and you’ll find it’s very informative. For example:

“Worship is what happens….” Worship is a happening, an event, an occasion, a special kind of time set apart from other times, from other happenings.

“…when a community that has heard God’s call for a people….” The primary action is God’s call for a people who must answer. Worship is understood as a response to God’s call. That’s why an “invocation” is so wrong at the beginning of a worship service, invoking God’s presence, inviting God to our worship service. God has called us, not the other way around.

“…God’s call for a people to serve God….” The call is not just to come to God, but it is a call to service, the service of no less than God.

“…when a community…comes together….” The first thing people do in response to God’s call is to come together. Look at the vocabulary: “congregation,” “assembly,” even “synagogue,” referring to the “gathering” of God’s people. This is the first act of worship: to respond to God by coming together.

Then, the gathered community will do a series of things:

“…to renew its consciousness of that call….” Remembering who God is and what God has done in extending the call to the people. This is where the call of God becomes personal. We are called by God to service. I am called by God to service.

“…to wait upon God for the words of understanding and strength to obey that call….” Waiting upon God, listening attentively and intently to what God might say to us in Scripture, sermon, and other proclamation so that God’s Word becomes present in our midst—all of this characterizes the first major segment of Christian worship known as “the Liturgy of the Word.” Here we receive, one would hope, some understanding about the call, what’s involved for me and for us. More than that, however, we can expect to find in God’s Word present in the words we hear a power and strength of the spirit enabling us to be obedient in our service to God.

“…and to offer itself and its resources in thankfulness to God….” The church’s offering of itself finds fullest expression in the sacraments. In baptism, the basic Christian ordination to the common ministry of all God’s people, lives are committed to God’s service. In the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, we thank God, and commit ourselves to becoming “the Body of Christ in the world.” This, of course, is “the Liturgy of the Sacrament,” the Word of God enacted, the Word who is Jesus Christ revealed by the power of the Holy Spirit to be present in our midst.

“…in thankfulness to God for the promise of a future which always resides in God’s call.” Our gratitude is not only for what God has done, but for what God will do. Death has not triumphed, as the Word (spoken and enacted) makes clear. We have a future. This is inherent in God’s call, and the definition loops us back to the beginning: we are called together to serve God, and that service is filled with promise.

How well does this definition work for you in thinking about Lord's Day worship?