Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

Although the ancient axiom appears in several different forms, lex orandi, lex credendi is the prevailing short-hand version. It means something like, “the law (or rule) of prayer is the law (or rule) of belief.” My simpler version is, “Our worship shapes our faith.”

There are those who say the phrase is so ambiguous that you could argue it just as well from the other end: “What we believe shapes our worship.” One would hope there is truth in that as well. Nevertheless, seeing worship as the starting-point for faith formation makes good sense to me.

Historically, the followers of the Risen Christ relied on common worship for some three centuries before a creed was ever crafted. The arena of liturgy was where they met the Risen Christ. Out of that experience they shaped their belief system. So it is, and must be for us.

Also, while theological instruction in educational institutions and church schools provides “faith formation,” it does only for a small minority. It is when gathered for worship that a much larger proportion of the people of God are in touch with the substance of faith.

Furthermore, it is my own experience that my early years spent at the side of my parents in congregational worship, listening to and speaking the prayers, having the words of the hymns pointed out before I could read them, watching the faith of my parents acted out, experiencing Christ present—all of this and more was significant in the development of my own faith.

So lex orandi, lex credendi has important implications for the responsibilities ministers and lay leaders have for the worship of the church. The big questions we need to be asking are, “What is ‘taught’ to the congregation by what we say, what we do, and how we say and do it? And how do we enable them to meet Christ?”

Once a solid member of the congregation was talking to me about the worship service and he made reference to “that thing you do at the Communion Table.” “What thing?” I asked. When he explained further I realized he was talking about the Eucharistic Prayer. What did I ever do to let anyone think that it was just a thing? How could I do it differently to include my friend as a pray-er?

Here are a few “things” to think about where we might be communicating something other than what we should:
Call to Worship – Is it really a summons to praise God, or a “howdy, folks?”
Confession – Does it help to open worshippers to God’s forgiveness? Does it speak of God’s grace or just judgment?
Scripture – Do you read from Old and New Testaments? Is it read well, or just gotten through? Does the manner of reading reflect the authority of Scripture?
Sermon – Is it prophetic? A corporate activity, or a solo? Comforting and challenging, or just entertaining?
Eucharist – Is it central to Sunday worship, or occasional? Is Christ recognized?
Charge and Benediction – Are people sent on a mission, or just to coffee hour?

Keep asking the questions, because how well we do things on Sunday morning will determine the strength of our faith.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm Confessing....

A little book that has been on my shelf and in my hands many times the last fifty years is He Sent Leanness—A book of prayers for the natural man, by David Head (MacMillan Company, New York 1959). It is a book filled with wisdom, humor, irony and lots more. It must be out of print, but copies are available on line from various sellers.

One of the standard prayers of confession widely used is The General Prayer of Confession. (See The Book of Common Worship (1993) on pp.87-88.) In contrast, David Head (on pages 18-19) offers two somewhat sarcastic and greatly exaggerated versions that he says might be in the hearts, if not in the mouths, of “natural” men and women. Here they are for comparison with the well-known original:

“Benevolent and easy-going Father: we have occasionally been guilty of errors of judgement. We have lived under the deprivations of heredity and the disadvantages of environment. We have sometimes failed to act in accordance with common sense. We have done the best we could in the circumstances; And have been careful not to ignore the common standards of decency; And we are glad to think that we are fairly normal. Do thou, O Lord, deal lightly with our infrequent lapses. Be thy own sweet Self with those who admit they are not perfect; According to the unlimited tolerance which we have a right to expect from thee. And grant as an indulgent Parent that we may hereafter continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect.”

“Almighty Judge: we have lived far from thy ways like wild goats. We have on all occasions rebelliously followed our own inclinations. We have deliberately and shamelessly broken thy holy laws. We have never done anything we ought to have done; And we are utterly depraved. We desperately miserable offenders can only expect thy harsh judgement. We live obsessed with the unrelieved knowledge of our guilt. The thought of Jesus Christ does nothing except increase the depth of our shame. We have no right to expect anything hereafter except the intolerable burden of our unrighteousness, and the hell of our eternal disgrace.”

David Head’s exaggerating, of course, to make his point. At the same time, he comes all too close to what some expect the prayer of confession to be. I know folks who’d scrap confession altogether since, as they put it, “I’m not that bad.” Then there are others who enjoy groveling and wallowing in their guilt. Maybe, if we’re honest, we all are like them from time to time.

How do you strike a balance in the prayer of confession so you move from awareness of sin to acceptance of forgiveness? Where do you find helpful models for prayers of confession?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Biblical Roots

It is no surprise that Christian worship finds its roots in Scripture. Biblical scholars have long noted many passages that reflect the ancient pattern and practices we see acted out each Sunday.

Two passages commonly held up as models for Christian worship are the Call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6) and the Road to Emmaus Story (Luke 24:13-35).

The pattern for the Service of the Word is laid out in Isaiah 6.

  • Glorious adoration of Almighty God starts the proceedings, and Isaiah is overwhelmed by the power of the praise.
  • All the celebration of the greatness of God serves to remind him of his own smallness, and he moves from adoration to confession. Not only does he blurt out his own personal shortcomings, but those of his society and culture as well.
  • Forgiveness comes in the form of a glowing hot coal on his unclean lips, taking away guilt and blotting out sin. Isaiah is now ready to hear the word of the Lord.
  • God’s word is spoken—with an appeal for a messenger to speak forth for God. Isaiah volunteers. And he receives the message to carry—a word people will not want to hear. It’s going to be a tough job.

The story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus provides another pattern, bringing together the Service of the Word and the Service of the Sacrament.

  • While on the road, a Stranger preaches to the forlorn disciples, interpreting the Scriptures about himself as the messiah.
  • Stopping for respite and a meal, the Stranger becomes the host and “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
  • As he broke bread, they instantly recognize Jesus present with them, and reflect on how he opened the Scriptures to them.

Overlay the two passages, and you have a fair outline of basic Christian worship.

Too many people fail to realize the biblical basis of what happens on Sunday morning. When we lose that anchor, the order of worship drifts and turns into an agenda of items to be accomplished, or, even worse, a hodge-podge of random activities.

If we will keep worship’s biblical roots in mind as we plan and lead worship, we have a chance of keeping our liturgical theology in line with the biblical message.

Have you ever thought of having a Bible Study on these two passages as an introduction to understanding worship in your church? How about other biblical passages that inform our liturgy? It’d be worth a try.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I worshipped recently in a church in Albany which showed near the top of its order of service the rubric, “Invocation.” Now worship leaders may think they know what that means, but I’m more concerned about how the pew-sitters perceive it.

The most common definition is “a form of prayer invoking God’s presence, esp. one said at the beginning of a religious service or public ceremony.” What’s implied by such an invocatory prayer at the start is that God has to be invited or won’t show up. What’s more, it assumes that we’ve come together on our own, that the party is ours, and we’re the ones to extend the invitation heavenward.

All in one fell swoop, this brand of invocation turns the notion of grace around so that we become the gracious hosts with God the guest in our church home, making the gathering more of a club than the fellowship of God’s people. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that God takes the initiative in calling us to worship (hence the use of biblical texts for the “Call to Worship”). It is God’s grace that summons and welcomes us, not the other way around.

There are other uses of invocations where God is summoned to appear which are easier to understand, even approve. The invocation at the beginning of the service club meeting may not be so bad because one would not likely assume that God would appear uninvited. Congress and other government bodies often have an opening invocation, and the considerable need for God’s presence in such venues certainly justifies it.

But not starting off the worship service. God has long since invited God’s own children and has been waiting for us all along, longing for our appearance. So our prayers at the beginning of the service acknowledge our relationship to God, and express the praise of “the creature before the Creator, the redeemed before the Redeemer” (BCW, p.35). Better, then, to call it “Prayer of Adoration,” or even “Opening Prayer.”

I don’t think this is mere semantics or liturgical finickiness. Let’s keep our sequence straight. God’s grace is prevenient. We worship in response.

What does the “Gathering” part of your worship service look like? What impression does it leave with the worshippers? It’s worth checking.