Thursday, November 26, 2009

Calendar Crunch

It’s crunch time again, when two calendars slam into each other at the intersection of seasons.

The one calendar is the Christian Year: starting with Advent, on to Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and more Ordinary Time until we return to Advent—and numerous special days along the way.

The other calendar is the one on your desk or hanging on the wall, starting with New Years Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, Mothers Day, July Fourth, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve—and numerous special days along the way.

It’s easy to see where they bump into each other. One of those times is hard upon us; actually it’s already begun.

Step into a mall today and you’ll see all the sales hawking potential Christmas presents. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the familiar tunes of Christmas carols serenading the shoppers. Drive around the neighborhood, and Christmas lights and decorations are popping up. It began this year around Halloween, and will continue with increased intensity up until December 24 at midnight—when all will stop abruptly (except for the lights which will twinkle on). This is the season of preparation for Christmas (a.k.a. ‘The Holiday Season”) in the secular world.

In the Christian Year, the season of preparation for Christmas is Advent. So far so good—the two calendars seem to be running in parallel lanes. But one swerves. In the church, people want to sing Christmas carols during the four weeks of Advent—after all, they hear them at the mall, why not at church? They also want to do other Christmassy things like pageants and parties, visits from Santa, and so forth. What happens is that we’re celebrating Christmas before Christmas. The two calendars crunch, and the church’s calendar gets the dents.

Then we arrive at a big day in the Christian Year, Christmas. Services of worship, prayer, celebration of gifts of love, ours, Gods, and singing praise to God for the miracle. And then. . . nothing. Crunch! We still have eleven more days of Christmas—it’s a season, remember? Yet it feels like we’ve already finished with Christmas.

What happens is that the secular calendar smashes into the Christian Year changing its contours. It happens not only at this season. Two other dangerous times, for example, are July Fourth on a Sunday when parishioners expect if not demand high patriotic themes and songs in the service. Then there’s Mother’s Day when Mom is to be idolized. (Note: I was invited to be a guest preacher last Mother’s Day. I took the occasion to preach on the radical, subversive text of Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-55). It wasn’t what they expected.)

The point is that it’s a struggle to be faithful to the Christian Year, to follow that calendar closely as we track the life of Christ from birth to life and ministry to death and resurrection, and then experience the life of the church in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a life-changing, faith-building journey, and we should not allow ourselves to be caught in the crunch or run off the road when the secular calendar swerves into our territory.

How do you educate your congregation about the Christian Year? Do you use the liturgical colors for the seasons? What other means do you use to make the Christian Year prominent?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Guest Post - On Baptism

Arlo Duba, Presbyterian minister and former professor of liturgy, submitted this response to my post on "The Incomplete Sacrament" (November 8). It was too long for a comment, so I'm posting it here.

There is only one baptism. The BCW (1993) got rid of "Confirmation" just as Calvin did. The BCW now has the "Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant" that is applicable at any age. It is repeatable. And it SHOULD be often repeated in the Christian life. Confirmation, as commonly understood, happens only once. Like a graduation. (That statement about the bats in the blog is misquoted. To get rid of bats, have them “confirmed,” and you will never see them again. They have completed the course) Reaffirmation is repeated as an individual becomes more and more immersed in the living of the baptismal life (pun intended). That reaffirmation is repeatable at age 5, 15, 25, 55, until death, when baptism is complete.

(We had a Baptist friend whose daughter became a believer at age 5, when she repented of a “sin” pointed out by her parents. She said she was sorry and said that she believed that Christ forgave her sin. She was immersed at five in a “believer’s baptism.” Her parents and their pastor agreed that she was a believer by that time. At first I laughed, but then I realized that there is more truth in that than is apparent. That should have been a “reaffirmation” that she had been living in a covenant family from birth. We can only hope that that necessarily immature “understanding” of God’s loving forgiveness developed and matured in coming years. It appears that in many persons such development stops at some point along the line.)

The early church had it correct. Baptism must be surrounded by catecheses. They spoke of "pre-baptismal" and "post-baptismal" catechesis. The blog is correct that the problem is this lacuna in the modern church's teaching. We need a focus on catechesis in the seminary, in the pulpit, in the Christian Education program of the denomination, in the local congregation, and as the blog says, in the home.

Just look at the vows the parents were asked to make at the baptism of their child at the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Not much sentimentality here. Note: 1. the stringency of the training of the parents before their child is baptized: Are you living out YOUR baptism? Are you living out the creed, praying regularly for expected (and with your other children)? etc. That was pre-baptismal. Then: 2. The gravity of the vows those parents made at the actual baptism of the child (just imagine insisting on those promises by parents in our congregations today: Do you promise to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that is, to pray with your child/children daily, pray with them the great prayers of Christians, pray at your meals and teach them to pray throughout the day as you do? Pray with them the Lord’s Prayer. In all this, you are teaching them how to pray. Read the Bible with them and sing the Psalms with them until they are memorized. Interpret the creed for them. Govern them through your example, and by pointing out the Christian interpretation of life situations and life decisions. Add to that Luther’s admonition to remember and re-live your baptism every day and you are requesting of the parents some pretty heavy public affirmations. Third, Do you promise to be faithful in your attendance, with your children, in the post baptismal catechesis provided by the parish? Post baptismal catechesis was expressed by weekly catechetical teaching in the church, such as the continued Sunday evening services with sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism that was still followed in many Reformed churches until the middle of the Twentieth century. (For an introduction to this entire regimen, see H. S. Old's The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century, 1992, Chapter 8, “The; Baptismal Vows,” especially pp. 203-207).

The Zwingli quote in Old’s book, p. 205, should be reaffirmed again and again throughout life, not only at some indefinable “age of discretion,” a supposedly understandable concept apparently invented by Zwingli. However, the parameters of that phrase have never been agreed upon. As illustrated above with the five year old child, it is a moveable concept. A study by Baptists pointed out that the “age of discretion” and thus of baptism in their churches, varied by congregation. In some it was as early as nine or ten years, in others as late as eighteen or nineteen, and in most individual congregations there was little variation from this local societal norm.

That variance seems to confirm the validity of the present Presbyterian position that the growth of faith should be according to the capability of the child, the teenager, the young adult, etc. It is constantly to be deepened and reaffirmed. That is what the “Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant” is about as it is so beautifully set out in the Book of Common Worship (1993). Faith and perception are to grow, throughout life; understanding is to grow throughout life. Living “the Baptized Life’ should always be advancing. We are constantly to give up our “childish” (not fully mature) understandings, even in our most senior years. Put away childish things constantly. Let all things constantly be becoming new. We will not come to “maturity” until we die. Only then will our baptism be complete. Baptism is a Resurrection event, a looking forward to death transformed. In Baptism we die with Christ so that we may also rise with Christ, when we will know even as we are known.

In the spirit of this blog, I would ask: How are you doing personally with the living of the Baptized Life? How are you teaching this developmental concept in your congregation? How do you think your congregation would do with the demands laid upon the congregations in the sixteenth century churches of the Reformation? How can we improve the adoption of the serious demands of Baptism within our congregation? How familiar are we with the “Invitation to Christ” of the Presbyterian Church (USA)? See

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Collect Prayer

When called upon to pray ad lib, especially without warning, it is sometimes difficult to keep from wandering far afield with a rambling prayer.

Not that it makes much difference to God, who knows our needs before we can cobble together words to express them. But it does make a difference to those who are praying with us. It helps to have a reasonable, understandable prayer that everyone can claim.

The first rule of leading prayer is, of course, to pray the prayer for yourself. Let it be real, authentic.

But there is a kind of prayer, a particular structure, which is easily learned, remembered and used. It’s called the “collect.” (Pronounce it coll-ect.)

Nobody seems to know where the term originated, but it appears to have something to do with the collecting of various petitions into one short prayer by the worship leader.

The pattern followed by collects is simple and straightforward:
1) Address to God—naming the One to whom we pray;
2) divine attributes—what we know about God pertinent to our request;
3) the petition—the heart of the prayer claiming the promises of God;
4) the result desired—how God’s granting the petition will translate into the lives of the people; and
5) a doxology—praise for Christ as the mediator of prayers to God.

I find this form helpful when I get volunteered to say the blessing at a meal. It might go something like this:
1) Gracious God,
2) you bring forth food for all to eat,
3) strengthen our bodies with this food and our souls with your spirit,
4) that we may always be your faithful people,
5) in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

The collect is also used in more formal settings like Sunday worship. The classic Prayer of the Day (Book of Common Worship, p. 50) follows this pattern:
1) Almighty God,
2) to whom all hearts are open,
all desires, known,
and from whom no secrets are hid:
3) Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
4) that we may perfectly love you
and worthily magnify your holy name;
5) through Christ our Lord.

The collect pattern can be a helpful guide in many prayers. In what other ways might you make use of it?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Incomplete Sacrament

The sacrament of infant baptism is fraught with problems.

For one thing, it is incomplete. Because the baptized child does not testify on his or her own, but relies on parental promises, the fullness of the sacrament is deferred until the infant matures to adulthood.

Because infant baptism is incomplete, we effectively have two baptisms, in spite of the affirmation of the Book of Order (W2-3008): “Baptism, whether administered to those who profess their faith or to those presented for Baptism as children, is one and the same Sacrament.” Saying so does not make it so. There are clearly two distinct approaches: infant baptism which awaits confirmation years down the road; and adult baptism which is completed by confirmation on the spot. (This raises further questions about “confirmation,” “commissioning,” or whatever part two is called.)

Sometimes the sacrament remains forever uncompleted. Parents and guardians make empty promises and the nurturing of the child in the faith is forgotten. The result of an uncompleted baptism is an incomplete Christian.

“Incomplete Christians,” by my definition, are those whose baptisms served as inoculations against the “disease” of faith. It was all they needed to be Christians—with baptism they were free and clear.

You know the old joke about the minister who advised the pastor of the neighboring church about how to get rid of the bats infesting the sanctuary ceiling: “Baptize them and you’ll never see them in church again.” It’s not as funny as it used to be—there’s too much truth in it.

Church leaders and pastors are as responsible for the problem as anyone. A more rigorous preparation is needed for parents presenting children for baptism. Responsibilities and expectations for the Christian nurture of their children should be made clearly and firmly. I shudder to think of the number of uncompleted Christians loose in the world, because I and the elders made it too easy for parents and sponsors.

Often, the sacrament of infant baptism is awash in sentimentality. I don’t advocate removing all sentiment, but it gets to be a bit much when the cuteness of the baby (and all babies are cute) overwhelms the congregation’s attention. The event becomes more a social occasion than a rite of faith.

What is more, infant baptism often trivializes the sacrament. There are those parents who simply want to “get Johnny done.” There is no great awe or wonder that a child (or any person for that matter) could die with Christ and be born again. The notion that in baptism the child is being committed to a life of giving and even sacrifice escapes most everyone. The lasting formidable consequences of baptism simply slip by unnoticed.

The Book of Order (W-2.3012) also says that the session is responsible to encourage parents to present their children for baptism “without undue haste, but without undue delay.” This asserts a prime emphasis on infant baptism. Yet in the Reformed tradition we have always acknowledged the alternative to baptizing infants, nurturing them toward believer baptism. It’s a reasonable option. Except, pity the poor child in that situation, restrained from a place at the Communion Table, forbidden the taste of bread and wine. It’s an alternative, it’s true, but one with an inherent penalty.

Baptism is the church’s witness to God’s claim on a life. It’s the basic Christian ordination, the commissioning to the specific responsibility of the Christian life. The awe of it is terrible. The promise of it is exhilarating. The sacrament deserves more than the neglect of incompleteness it has received in recent generations, more than the abuse it has suffered by sentimentality and trivial treatment.

If we are going to continue baptizing children, then we must be more clear about parental responsibilities, and more stern in our insistence they be fulfilled. And if there is any doubt or waffling, we must learn to say no.

Or, we should seriously consider a policy of nurturing all children toward baptism on their own affirmations of faith. As children they would be welcomed in a service of dedication as they are presented to the congregation.

One way or the other, we need to restore the integrity of the sacrament of baptism and not hop about with two uneven forms of baptism, one for children, and the other for grown-ups.

How do you counsel parents who want baptism for their children? How often do you baptize adults?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"Traditional" and "Contemporary"

I worshiped at a church last Sunday at the first of two services. It was the one they called “traditional”; the later one was branded “contemporary.”

At the in-between refreshment and coffee hour, the pastor told me that serving food and drink was the way they created the possibility that the two congregations could interact, at least a little bit. Otherwise folks went to one or the other, and never the twain shall meet.

Which is one of the problems with such dual arrangements. Having separate and different “traditional” and “contemporary” services tends to bring forth two distinct breeds of worship, and separate congregations for each. So much for unity.

Yet that’s not the biggest problem, at least to my way of thinking. There are more difficulties with the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” when applied to Christian worship.

First, they are both inaccurate if meant to be exclusive.

All Christian worship is, in a real sense, traditional; we’ve been at it for nigh on to two thousand years now, so how could we forget the tradition behind us? When we deny tradition or reject it outright, we demonstrate an arrogant chauvinism suggesting that only newly fashioned worship can be good. It also pretends that history has nothing to offer and we are all liturgical orphans left to fend for ourselves, and thus we are doomed to reinventing what was already our inheritance.

What is more, all Christian worship is contemporary. It’s what’s happening now. Whatever it is, good bad or indifferent, it is current.

Second, the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” applied to Christian worship are often stereotypical. “Traditional” worship is old-fashioned for old fogeys; to imagine a twenty-something could be spiritually inspired by Bach’s organ preludes would boggle the mind. “Contemporary” worship is for twenty-somethings; certainly no old fogey like me could ever worship with rock or Gospel music (but I have, and do).

“Traditional” worship is often centered around the music supplied by the versatile organ, while “contemporary” invites participation of a keyboard, drums, strings and other instruments. And the instruments find their limitations within the stereotypes.

As labels, then, the two words just cause more problems than they solve. They should be abolished, never to be mentioned in the context of worship for at least one generation.

Yet there is another even more insidious way that “traditional” and “contemporary” promote mischief. If indeed it is true that each is designed to appeal to particular populations marked by generation or interests, then that “appeal” begins to dominate the worship itself. Satisfying likes and dislikes of potential worshippers creeps into the reason for worship’s being. From that step worship takes a slide down the slippery slope of performance for the audience, rather than the expression of the people’s praise to God in response to God’s Word spoken in Jesus Christ.

In human conversation, an answer needs to be consistent with the question asked or statement made. In the dialogue of worship, our expressions of faith must also be consistent with the Good News we hear.

What makes your worship traditional and contemporary at the same time? What possibilities does so-called “blended worship” have?