Friday, September 25, 2009

The Key Play of the Game

You probably know the story (maybe apocryphal) of Reinhold Niebuhr taking Paul Tillich to his first baseball game. It was bottom of the ninth in a tie game, with the home team’s best batter stepping to the plate. Not having a clue why all the fans were standing and shouting, Tillich tugged inquisitively at Niebuhr’s sleeve: “What’s happening?” Niebuhr answered, “It’s the kairos, Paulus. It’s the kairos!” Whereupon Tillich leapt to his feet and cheered with the rest.*

This sports report reveals the two kinds of time found in the Bible, and in the liturgy of God’s people who follow Jesus. On the one hand there is chronos, that time that is marked off by the squares on the scorecard, batter by batter, inning by inning. On the other hand there is kairos, the time, the moment, the instant that gives meaning to all the rest of what’s been happening, the key play of the game.

In theological language, kairos is God’s time, where God finds it opportune to break in to human chronology and act in a way that will transform or infuse chronos with meaning. Christians see a kairos, “the Christ-event,” intersecting the chronos of history. This took place “in the fullness of time,” just at the opportune moment, to change everything, bringing light into the darkness, hope to counteract despair, love to triumph over self-interest.

Because of the Christ-event, Christians have learned to look for other, smaller versions of kairos when they happen. Even if we still think chronologically, we keep alert for kairos. We anticipate kairos, we even long for God breaking through to us.

For example, we Christians order the year according to the life of Christ. The Christ-event kairos is spelled out in considerable detail. Yet there are times in that chronology when we expect kairos more than others: Easter, Christmas, their preparatory seasons, Lent and Advent, and other special days. Anticipation of God’s breaking through to us is high.

The liturgical question, however, is whether or not we recognize kairos breaking into the chronology of Sunday worship. It is easy to see worship as just one thing after another and miss the spiritual potential in each act. We come to worship on the Lord’s Day expecting the promise to be fulfilled: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20) God is already there for us, ready to transform our worship from a duty to a joy, from boring to exciting, from something to run through quickly as possible to an event that is profound and one to be savored.

We need to anticipate and expect such kairos to interrupt our sequence of liturgy. For each one of us it may be, and in all likelihood will be, something different. The kairos we await is that life-changing touch by the Spirit that makes us new, renewed and refreshed. It could turn out to be God’s “key play” of our whole life. Surely that’s worth standing up and shouting about with enthusiasm.

Where do you anticipate kairos in your life. Looking back, where have you seen God breaking through even though you may have missed it the first time? Where do you look for kairos at Lord’s Day worship?
* Another version of this story appeared in From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion, by Joseph L. Price, Mercer University Press, 2001, p. 73.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Time was when Presbyterians and other Reformed types were noted for their psalm-singing in worship. Not so much these days, even though the ecumenically accepted lectionary includes a schedule of psalms. Four lessons are prescribed; well, actually three with a psalm following the Old Testament reading.

In this arrangement, the psalm can be used as the source of a text for the sermon, but more often serves as a response to the Old Testament lesson. As such, the psalm is an act of praising God or a prayer of penitence—in either case an occasion for congregational singing.

The problem I have with the psalms in Sunday worship is that we speak them rather than sing them. (That is making a rather rash assumption that the psalm is even included—too often it is simply dropped, skipped over, ignored.) The psalm may be a “responsive reading” alternating back and forth from leader to congregation. The question persists, Why aren’t we singing the psalms on Sunday?

One answer is that it is good enough to just speak the psalms responsively—it gets the meaning across. My reply is that speaking isn’t as good as singing, and besides it isn’t usually done very well. Those who lead such antiphonal readings need to practice their presentation as much as they would in reading any passage of Scripture. Too often it’s done with flat intonations and empty of enthusiasm or meaning.

I’m not happy either with the practice of assigning the parts by whole verses, when the Hebrew half-verses are clearly visible (usually noted by the asterisks). Using half-verses makes the dialogue much stronger, as the people reply by affirming and elaborating on the lines of the leader.

Singing is much, much better, however, and our forebears have left us a treasure of metrical hymnody based on the psalms. I gained a new appreciation for our Presbyterian legacy of metrical psalms in an unusual way. The task force on Daily Prayer and the Psalter of the Presbyterian Church (USA), on which I served, was meeting at St. Meinrad’s Seminary and Monastery to sample their practice of singing the Psalter. We also had time with Brother Samuel F. Webber, a preeminent Roman Catholic scholar, who spoke at length with us about the use of psalms in worship.

The task force had already discussed metrical psalmody among ourselves, and had come to the conclusion that we’d omit them from the new Presbyterian Psalter. After all, plenty were in the current hymnal, and they were old hat anyway, not very exciting any more because of long usage.

After Brother Samuel had finished his lecture, one of our group asked him what he thought of metrical psalms. To which he replied with great excitement and zeal about what a great contribution our Presbyterian tradition had brought to psalmody, finishing with this exclamation: “Metrical psalmody is a jewel in the crown of the Psalter!” Needless to say, we changed our minds and metrical psalms were included.

Another resource is available too. The psalms in the Book of Common Worship are “pointed” for chanting, with singable congregational refrains and chant tone. Now, these will take some work on the part of the church musicians, the choir and the congregation, no question of it. Church musicians will have to teach them to the choir and use a bit of extra rehearsal time. In turn, the choir will function as the auxiliary to the congregation, and be the mentors and teachers of the people in the pews. Maybe even some pre-worship rehearsals as people gather will be desirable.

Chanting allows the congregation to have the benefits of both the speaking and singing referred to above, without the limitations of each. The whole psalm text is used in chanting as in speaking, not a paraphrase as in metrical versions. Singing the psalms is a significant part of our liturgical tradition, one which we share with Christians in many denominations, to the enrichment of our common faith.

How does your congregation employ the psalms in Lord’s Day worship?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Music, Music, Music

It’s been said (by whom I don’t remember) that most Christians form their personal theology based on the hymns they sing while growing up and into maturity. That may be something of an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Surely the hymnody of the church through the centuries contains a rich treasure of religious wisdom and insight in format designed to teach and be remembered.

Selecting what is to be rendered musically in a service is a critical matter. Yet I suspect for many ministers it is something only a tad more than casually done. It’s easy to neglect if not ignore the power of hymns to enhance and uplift worship.

I remember going to a service some time ago when the total hymnody amounted to one verse of one hymn. The rest of the music offered was pseudo pop tunes to which were set what someone has called “seven-eleven” lyrics—seven words repeated eleven times over. It was easy enough to sing, and everyone seemed to have a grand time doing it. Yet it didn’t cut it—not for me, anyway.

The problem was that the songs were paper thin theologically, and had a memory life of about ten minutes out the door. My wife and I tried to remember the tunes as we drove out of the parking lot, and, aside from the single verse of the standard hymn (which we already knew), we struck out.

The upshot of that kind of service is that children and adults have nothing to stash away into their faith memories--no images, no poetry that sings along with a melody that won’t go away. Music isn’t everything in a worship service, but musical shallowness can be deadly over the long haul.

So, here are a few ideas.

Once a year, at least, the minister(s) should sit down with the primary musician and run through the entire hymnal to unearth the pearls that are there. Sing them happily and heartily. You’ll be surprised at old friends you’d forgotten and new ones you never knew were there.

Notice that a number of hymn tunes are from folk sources. I’ve been told on good authority that most all folk tunes from whatever country and time were originally dance tunes. They should be played to dance to, and then they will be fun to sing—and memorable.

For example: “The Lone, Wild Bird” (#320 in the Presbyterian Hymnal), so often is sung drearily—it’s ¾ time, a waltz, and will soar when so treated. Even that old stand-by, “Amazing Grace” (also in ¾ time) benefits from a dance beat.

For an example of a rousing hymn from an unlikely source, turn in your hymnal to (#194 in the Presbyterian Hymnal) “Peoples, Clap Your Hands!” from the Genevan Psalter of 1551. When done aright (and it takes some practice, but is well worth it), this syncopated tune will set your toes to tapping and stand the hair up on the back of your neck. In the process of discovering they can sing exciting music, people will find their faith deepened as well.

What hymns do you know that can perk up worship, teach the faith, and actually be fun to sing?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Text and Context

A seminary professor of mine once admonished us saying, “A text out of context is no text.” He was decrying the practice of using a single biblical verse (or maybe two) as the springboard from which to jump into the sermon.

The danger, as true now as he saw it then, is that the text becomes a place to depart from, and is too often left behind as the preacher wanders far afield.

The Reformers had their own slogan: scriptura scripturam interpretatur, scripture interprets scripture, affirming the overarching unity of biblical witness. But it is not only the larger context that is important. Certainly the near context counts as well.

Given all of this, it has been a wonder to me that so many Christians today are worshipping in churches where they hear only snippets of Scripture. Even so-called “Bible-believing” congregations may hear only that handful of verses dispensed by the preacher in the course of the sermon. How often those sermons go adrift because they have no biblical anchor. For the preaching to be biblical, the connection between text and context should be immediate and fairly obvious to the listeners.

Well, maybe it isn’t so big a problem, if you’ll assume the congregation is geared up for Lord’s Day worship by regular weekday reading and study of the Bible. I suspect, however, that’s an oversize assumption. Ah, would that it were so! Certainly such preparation should be enthusiastically encouraged.

What I’m leading up to is celebrating the return of a full set of lessons each Sunday morning: Old Testament*, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel. The new Revised Common Lectionary is an invaluable resource at this point. It provides something of context, wide and near, for the sermonic text.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that those are the only passages one can use. Always the preacher has the sole responsibility to determine text and topic of the sermon. Still, the Lectionary offers a range of passages covering major biblical themes and emphases of the Christian Year. Over a period of time, an annual cycle, for example, we begin to develop in our common worship a sense of the larger context of Scripture that supports and helps interpret individual passages. We come to recognize the unity in Scripture because the same unity is audible and visible in our worship.

Of course one should be wary of making precise connections between or among the various lessons. Sometimes themes are found to be in common between two or more; but just as often commonality is forced and strained because it really isn’t there. There is also the context of texts fore and aft of the lectionary text that should be consulted by the preacher.

I’m an old-fashioned sort, and like the idea of preaching the sermon from the pulpit with an open Bible. It’s a good symbol, a helpful reminder to anchor the sermon on that rock of God’s Word.

How central and full is the biblical witness where you worship?
* Some, in an effort to be religiously correct, refer to the Old Testament as the "Hebrew Scriptures." I asked a rabbi friend about this. He said that for Christians it is the Old Testament, and that’s what we should call it. To use the term “Hebrew Scriptures” in Christian worship is disingenuous and inaccurate. I agree. Do you?