Friday, December 24, 2010

Songs for All Seasons

It feels like everything is out of sync when we’re hearing Christmas carols in the mall starting on Halloween. I know it’s a commercial ploy to create a generous mood in shoppers, and is exploiting the faith. So I’m much happier when the Season of Christmas begins and the carols and songs sound out when they’re timely.

On the other hand, there are three songs that we usually identify with the Season of Christmas that are versatile enough to be sung at any time. You’ll find them in Luke’s Gospel: canticles by Mary (Magnificat), Zechariah (Benedictus) and Simeon (Nunc Dimittis). Although all three songs are featured in the story of the birth of Jesus, their usefulness in liturgy is not limited to the Christmas or Advent Seasons.

The Book of Common Worship—Daily Prayer places these three biblical songs in premier position every day: Mary’s Song in Evening Prayer; Zechariah’s Song in Morning Prayer; and Simeon’s Song in Prayer at the Close of Day (Night Prayer).

In other words, they’re appropriate year round, any season, any day. The expectation is, for Daily Prayer, that they’ll be used frequently.

It’s too easy to write the three canticles off as belonging to Christmas, and shelve them for the rest of the church year. When they become part of the daily discipline of prayer, however, their realism and relevance become clear.

Mary’s Song, in the Book of Common Worship-Daily Prayer, has been treated with some liturgical license. Rather than speaking about God in the third person, as she does in the biblical text, the prayer book version has her speaking to God in the second person. It is much more intimate. The song becomes a prayer. In the context of worship, daily or Sunday, Mary’s Song becomes our prayer.

What a flaming radical Mary is. She signs on with God, no hesitation. Not much more than a child herself, she agrees to be God-bearer, to bring Christ into the world. And she is fully aware that what God does through her will turn the world upside down—God casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.

Mary’s Song, then, is the prayer of the church. We, too, are God-bearers, called to bring Christ into our world. We, too, are God’s agents in setting things right side up once again.

Zachariah’s Song appears in Morning Prayer. For the most part, it too is a prayer we can pray. Except for one brief section wherein Zachariah speaks to his Son, John, who is destined to serve God. John will grow up to be the “advance man” for Jesus—he will “go before the Lord to prepare the way.”

Zachariah’s Song then is our prayer and our marching orders as we launch our lives each day. We are to prepare the way of the Lord, “to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.”

Simeon’s Song comes with our prayers at night. It’s the prayer of an old man who at last knows God’s promise of salvation is kept—now he can rest in peace.

“Rest in peace” sounds funereal. And it is. Prayer at the Close of Day is a rehearsal for Prayer at the Close of Life. Some of the texts and other prayers of the service are familiar ones that we have used and heard in funerals.

This is not unusual for end of day prayers. Children over generations have gone to bed at night saying, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”, which also links the end of day with the end of life.

There is another ancient version of that thought used as a refrain to Simeon’s Song, worth memorizing—also a good prayer for all occasions:
Guide us waking, O Lord,
and guard us sleeping;
that awake we may watch with Christ,
and asleep rest in his peace.

You can really sing Mary’s, Zachariah’s and Simeon’s songs. Musical versions are readily available in the Presbyterian Hymnal (601-605).

Have you used any of these canticles at times other than Advent or Christmas? Do you follow Daily Prayer in your church? For yourself?

Sunday, December 19, 2010


The portion of Christian liturgy labeled “Gathering” has numerous ritual possibilities, as I rolled out in my last post. The part called “Sending” is considerably skimpier.

As often as not, the Sending is treated abruptly as the Ending. The Word is read and proclaimed, the Eucharist is celebrated and shared, we sing a hymn, a blessing is pronounced. The End. We’d be better off, however, thinking of the Sending in terms of “To Be Continued….”

The Book of Common Worship (1993) does provide some Sending suggestions, the first being that everyone sing a hymn. But not just any hymn. It should be a hymn that picks us up, riles our souls, and inspires us to carry our service of worship into the next week by worshipping God with our service.

There are any number of hymns that can lift a congregation up and send them out into the world as Christ’s disciples. “Lift High the Cross” (371 in The Presbyterian Hymnal) is one of my favorites. This is a great recessional hymn as choir and clergy lead the parade out into the world.

The other suggestion in the BCW is the Charge to the congregation, composed from a collection of Scripture texts (See 1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Tim. 2:1; Eph. 6:10;
1 Thess. 5:13-22; and 1 Peter 2:17.):
Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have found this charge, over the years, to have powerful impact. It’s repetition has cumulative effect, and staying power. I remember well, for example, the man who grasped my hand after the service one Sunday, quietly saying that he needed to speak with me for a moment, in private. When we stepped into my study, this is the story he told. “A while ago,” he said, “one of my colleagues at work undercut me, really knifed me in the back on a project. Well, last week I had a chance to get even, and I was poised to let him have it….” He paused, fought back a tear, and continued, “…when I heard in my head, those words I’ve heard so many times on Sunday: ‘return no one evil for evil.’ And I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.” He went on to express his astonishment and appreciation for the power of those words.

The Sending is the other half of the Gathering. As we are gathered to be God’s people at worship, so we are scattered to be God’s people in the world. Both gathered and scattered, however, God’s people are praising God, serving God by serving God’s children. One is no more or less worship than the other.

Roman Catholics dip their hands in holy water and cross themselves as they enter the church, as a reminder that by baptism they first came into the church. They do the same leaving, as a reminder that they are to go into the world to live out their baptism. Whether or not we like that ritual, remembering our baptism coming and going is worth serious consideration.

Why not put a strong recollection of our baptisms as part of the sending. Here’s a suggestion. Add something like this unison prayer, based on a model offered in the Service of Reaffirmation of Baptism—Growth in Faith (BCW p. 483), just before the Charge and Blessing:

Faithful God,
in baptism you claimed us;
and by your Spirit you are working in our lives,
empowering us to live a life worthy of our calling.
We thank you for leading each of us
to this time and place
of reaffirming the covenant you made with us in our baptisms.
Establish us in your truth,
and guide us by your Spirit,
that, together with all your people,
we may grow in faith, hope, and love,
and be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.

This would strengthen the sense of “Sending”, making us worshippers more aware that our being the people of God is not finished, but is really “to be continued….”

Do you hear a Charge to the congregation as you are sent out to follow Christ each Sunday? Does your church’s liturgy have any ritual to strengthen the Sending?

Sunday, December 12, 2010


One of the more important and most often neglected parts of a service of Christian worship is what is called the “Gathering.” The assembling of the faithful on the Lord’s Day doesn’t just happen willy-nilly—there is considerable thoughtful ritual associated with it.

Shifting gears from every-day life to the focused worship of Almighty God is not always easy; maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s never easy. So there’s a process laid out that moves us from here to there, nudging us into the spiritual place where the “work of the people” happens, celebrating God’s love in Jesus Christ.

I always thought that the “Gathering” began at the door of the church, but I’ve come to realize that it begins earlier. For some the process begins when feet hit the floor on Sunday morning. Right away thoughts and the meditations of hearts begin to tilt toward church and all to be experienced there: friends to meet, Scripture to hear, hymns to sing, forgiveness to find, enthusiasm to absorb, peace to receive—all of these start their holy work on worshippers early in the day.

We’ve already heard God’s call in our own lives, and it’s in response to God’s call that we make the effort, even when it’s at odds with our personal preference at the moment. We who have been the church in the world are then on the way to becoming the church at worship. Already as we arrive in the parking lot and make our way into the building, we are starting to be “gathered.”

The first thing that happens is that we see our friends, maybe meet someone new or a visitor, and casual greetings are exchanged all around. This is a time of hospitality, practicing that essential Christian virtue of welcoming others as human beings, if nothing else.

Sometimes we are inclined to discount these greetings because they tend to be superficial, and are often related to something other than our brother-sister Christian family relationships. Hospitality, however, is always to be taken seriously, for the welcoming of one person by another is always a sign of grace.

I was the guest preacher in a church a few weeks ago where the custom is to do the Greeting of Peace right at the beginning of the service. It was a small enough congregation that I got to shake hands and share a holy greeting with everyone in the place. That was nice for me as the guest preacher because I worshipped with and preached to people whom I now had met.

Whatever else happens when we greet one another at the Gathering, however, we should be clear that our congregation is not a country club or some other assembly of like-minded people assembled because of common tastes and interests, but a church of diverse people called by God to love each other and the world as God does. The liturgical pieces flow from the awareness that God has called us (and that’s the only reason we’re there).

The prelude, obviously, is part of our preparation. A friend of mine said the prelude is the accompaniment to the “entrance dance of the people.” At least part of the prelude might be lively enough to fill that bill, and music also can lead into a time of quiet preparatory meditation.

I’ve always found that a time of silence serves me well also. Quiet helps me to collect my own thoughts and prayers that up till now had been fairly scattered.

The Call to Worship in words of Scripture is another reminder of God’s call, an authoritative summons for us to pray and praise before the Almighty, to give thanks for the gift of Jesus Christ, and to renew our commitment to new life. Sometimes the call to worship is also sung in the form of an “introit,” a musical introduction to the service.

A Hymn of Praise lets us all join in with full voice to praise God with words and music that provide not only delight and uplifting of spirit, but theological substance. The great hymns of church tradition shouldn’t be left on a shelf somewhere in favor of pop songs or so-called contemporary music that is theologically thin. Praise of God deserves our very best.

The Prayer of the Day may be used to introduce a theme emphasized throughout the service, and set our hearts and minds to be receptive. The Lord’s Prayer, offered here, also sets forth the pattern for prayer content as instructed by Jesus to his disciples.

More singing of God’s praise in special music by choir or soloists brightens the Gathering, and also can do much in setting the mood for what comes next. The Prayer of Confession (in unison, please) and the Declaration of Forgiveness are essential in clearing away the guilt that so often prevents us from hearing the fullness of God’s Word.

All of this is offered as preparation for the sections of Word and Eucharist. The arrangement may vary, and not every item is necessarily included. Yet it is clear that from Sunday morning rising to attentive hearing of the Word of God, there’s much to be done.

What do you find most helpful in gathering yourself, with others, in the church? What does not help you prepare for hearing God’s Word personally?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pastoral Prayer

I recently was the guest preacher for a congregation without a pastor for two Sundays. Their order of service, following the sermon, called for a “Pastoral Prayer.”

The first Sunday I was there, I filled that slot with a series of bidding prayers à la the “Prayers of the People” in the Book of Common Worship (1993), complete with brief instruction about the introductory phrase and congregational response following each one.

Because the responses of the people to the Prayers of the People were hesitant for many and non-existant for quite a few of the folks, I decided the next week to go for a more “traditional” pastoral prayer. Looking out on many gray heads convinced me that they and I would be more comfortable, and perhaps more prayerful, with what might be for them a more familiar form.

The pastoral prayer has always been a focus of misunderstanding in our churches, mainly because “pastoral” has not been clearly defined.

There have been, and probably still are, plenty of people who think the pastoral prayer is the sole property of the pastor. I remember painfully more than one occasion when some congregants would talk to me about “that thing you do” in reference to the pastoral prayer. “Pastoral” in their minds meant “pastor’s.” Which gave them latitude to tune out, and accept no responsibility for the commitments implicit and explicit in the prayer.

Now I know well that a wandering mind during a lengthy liturgical prayer can be a prime opportunity for the Spirit to lead a soul. A good pastoral prayer will touch individual lives in ways not necessarily calculated in advance by the pastor. At the same time, the pastor knows (or should know) the people, and therefore is able to frame and shape the prayer in such a way as to be hospitable to the people in the pew.

The true definition of “pastoral” has to do with the spiritual care of a congregation. The one who has this overall pastoral responsibility brings together in the pastoral prayer, not her own concerns, but those prayers in the hearts of the people seeking to be spoken aloud by the one who cares for them.

Behind the pastoral prayer, the prayers of the people, is time spent by the pastor visualizing and praying for every person for whom he has responsibility for spiritual care. This should be a part of the daily prayer schedule, using the models of morning and evening prayers of thanksgiving and intercession.

I realized that this was exactly my problem as a guest preacher. I wasn’t the pastor. I knew two people in the congregation, one of whom I hadn’t seen for years. So, to some extent, I was flying blind in putting the pastoral prayer together.

I was not entirely without pastoral understanding, however. There was a list in the bulletin of people for whom concern had been expressed. I had known previous pastors of the church and had some sense of their pastoral concerns. And, of course, I brought to the prayer my own understanding of the human condition and the common needs in all of our souls.

I was mindful also of the presence in the BCW of rubrics that supply an outline that one like myself might use to create a worthy pastoral prayer (see the rubrics below). This outline is very useful as a map for an ad lib prayer. Extemporaneous prayers (my own and those of others I’ve heard) tend to be highly selective and forget to touch on significant and persistent concerns. Furthermore, such prayers often wander afield and lack coherence. Following a guide is helpful discipline and education.

We’ve changed the terminology: from “Pastoral Prayer” to “Prayers of the People,” which is a good change. Yet we should not forget that the prayer by whatever name requires considerable pastoral sensitivity in reading the unspoken prayers of the people and giving them voice.

How “pastoral” are the prayers of the people in your congregation? Do you rebuild the models offered in the BCW, or use them “as is”? Do you make use of the rubrics for ad lib prayers?

From the Book of Common Worship (1993), page 99:

The congregation prays for worldwide and local concerns, offering intercessions for:
the church universal, its ministry and those who minister,
including ecumenical councils, churches in other places,
this congregation;
the nations and those in authority;
peace and justice in the world;
the earth and a right use of its resources;
the community and those who govern;
the poor and the oppressed;
the sick, the bereaved, the lonely, all who suffer in body,
mind, or spirit;
those with special needs.
Those who have died are remembered with thanksgiving.
The prayers are to be offered in a manner that engages the people in prayer. They may be prepared by the one leading the prayers, and offered in a free style. Or one of the forms that follow may be used. In using any of these forms, appropriate petitions and concerns may be selected, and others added. Or similar prayers may be prepared using these forms as models.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lifting the Cup

In my last post I wrote about the “fraction,” that ritual act of breaking bread before the distribution of the meal to the people. It is seemly that its companion ritual act, the lifting of the cup, should receive similar consideration.

The breaking of the bread seems to draw the major amount of interest of scholars and others, while lifting the cup, overshadowed by the fraction, just tags along without much comment. Yet it does carry significance in its own right.

My Lutheran friend at the church I often attend, noted that, as is the case with the fraction, they do not lift the cup for fear of appearing to mimic the Lord himself, or having it look like the pastor is taking Jesus’ place. So for sure they would not hold the chalice up before the congregation while speaking the Words of Institution:
“In the same way he took the cup, saying:
This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood,
shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you drink it,
do this in remembrance of me.”

As much as I agree with the Lutherans on not stepping into the role of Jesus in a reproduction of an ancient event, there are reasons to hold the cup up before the congregation after the Eucharistic prayer and before the meal is served.

For one thing, presenting the chalice to the people with a clear liturgical gesture indicates that this is a common meal. As the presider holds the cup at eye level or a bit higher, it is an offering to all, a sharing with all.

This gesture, of course, exposes the inadequacy of individual semi-shot glasses. No presider would ever minimalize the sacrament by holding up a tiny glass in this presentation gesture. When passed around to the worshippers in trays, the individual cups individualize the sacrament, scaling it down to a one-at-a-time rather than communal event.

Lifting the cup not only suggests a common sharing of the wine, but would indicate that the best means is for all to drink from the same chalice. Furthermore, pouring wine from a pitcher or decanter into the common cup strengthens the visibility of the ritual act of lifting the cup before the congregation.

Even that ever-increasingly-popular mode called intinction, the dipping of the bread into the common cup, gives some support to the communal quality of the meal. If small cups are to be used, then at least they should be filled for the communicant at the table from a common pouring cup (one with a lip that makes it easy and neat to fill the small mini-shot in the worshipper’s hand).

What gives the lifting of the cup power is the fact that it presents the blood of Christ as the sign and seal of the New Covenant, not a past compact of God with the people, but a present gift. In “remembering” what Christ has done in the shedding of his blood, that gift of Christ becomes present, immediate and intimate to the worshippers. The covenant between God and our selves is new now, offered to all.

The presentation of the cup visibly, and reinforced with words, not the Words of Institution, but words such as those provided in the Book of Common Worship (1993), lend a simple but powerful gesture to the experience of the Lord’s Supper.

Is the chalice raised before the congregation at Communion in your church? What is said, if anything? How do the people take the elements: common cup, intinction, pouring into small cups, small cups in trays, other?

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Fraction: The ritual act of breaking bread in the Lord’s Supper.

A while back it dawned on me that for some time I had not seen (nor heard reference to) the “fraction” in the Lord’s Supper at the Lutheran Church I often attend. So I started to pay closer attention to the places in the liturgy when the presider might break the bread for all to see—but I didn’t see it, and neither did my wife.

So, one Sunday after the service we politely confronted the pastor with a query, “Where was the fraction?” His answer was that there wasn’t one, because the Lutherans didn’t really do that, although sometimes they did.

Above all, they would avoid breaking the bread in conjunction with the Words of Institution:
“The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread,
and after giving thanks to God,
he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take, eat.
This is my body, given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”

Such mimicry is considered inappropriate in that the presider would seem to usurp the place of Jesus. Also, the verbs “”took,” “gave thanks,” “broke” and “gave” are descriptive of what Jesus did, while “take” and “eat” are his commands for us to do. Some have indicated that it is furthermore inaccurate to break the bread as a symbol of the “breaking” of Jesus’ body, especially since the writer of the Gospel of John went out of his way to assure readers that no bones had been broken at the crucifixion in fulfillment of ancient prophecies (19:33-37).

This challenges a common practice among Presbyterians which is to do exactly what the Lutherans won’t do—break the bread visibly before the congregation using the text of the Words of Institution.

I’d agree with the desire to avoid what our Lutheran friends call “mimicry,” and the fraction should not take place with the Words of Institution. When we pretend to recreate the past, by so doing we invite the worshippers to take a journey into olden times and miss the present reality of sharing with one another the Bread of Life given to us by the Risen Christ. The same sort of problem exists when, for example, on Maundy Thursday the Table is set with twelve places to imitate the original meal in the upper room—it is liturgical nostalgia and the event loses its impact in the here and now.

Rather than being a script to accompany the rite of fraction, the Words of Institution are the warrant for our having this Table Celebration in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore their proper placement would be at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Sacrament, or possibly just before distribution of the elements. (The Words of Institution do not belong in the midst of the Eucharistic Prayer; when used there, they are a distraction.)

In any case, there should be a visible fraction. The main reason to break the bread is, of course, in order to share it and this should be made obvious to all present. In this sense the breaking of the bread to share is a visual sign of the giving of Christ’s body for each and all of us. It is helpful to mark the first breaking of the bread for distribution, and to do it for all to see.

This might be done in silence very effectively, with a simple invitation to the people to come to the Table. Or words (such as those provided in the Book of Common Worship(1993) might be used making the ritual act of fraction verbal as well as visual.

When and how is the Communion bread broken in your church? Do you use a single loaf to break, or is it already cut or broken before the service? Or do you use wafers? What is said when the bread is broken, if anything?

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Model Prayer

Once upon a time, if memory serves me well, the practice in the church I served was to pray the Lord’s Prayer at the end of what we called the “Prayer of Adoration” (also known as the “Prayer of the Day” or “Opening Prayer”).

That always seemed to me to be a reasonable placement for a model prayer that Jesus left with his disciples. Placed at the beginning of the service, the Lord’s Prayer set a standard for other prayers to meet.

Jesus was in good rabbinical form when he said to them, “Pray then in this way…” (Matthew 6:9-13), or “When you pray, say…” (Luke 11:2-4). They wanted to learn how to pray, so he gave them a memorable example, a recipe for prayer with all the necessary ingredients.

Since the two versions we have of this brief prayer in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels show sufficient common traits to be kin, we can deduce that Jesus’ followers had already socked it away in their corporate memory. It was a model worth recalling as they sought God via more specific petitions.

Somewhere around the end of the first and beginning of the second century C.E., according to the Didache, the Lord’s Prayer was to be prayed three times a day. By then it had already become part of the daily prayer of the church, and its repetition established its reputation as the Model Prayer.

Somewhere along the way, however, in addition to modeling prayer, the Lord’s Prayer was inserted in the Lord’s Day worship at the end of the Eucharistic prayer. According to Gregory the Great (c.598 C.E.), the reason was that it was the Apostles’ custom to consecrate the sacrifice of the offering by this prayer alone, and it seemed inappropriate to say words crafted by a scholar and ignore what Jesus himself had handed down.

Also, I suspect, the petition of the Lord’s Prayer for “daily bread” must have resonated with the breaking and sharing of bread immediately following the Eucharistic prayer, and so it seemed meet and right to be recited then.

The BCW locates the Lord’s Prayer at that point, without comment, as did previous Presbyterian worship books. In the Daily Prayer services, the Lord’s Prayer is similarly placed at the end of the prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession.

This placement, universal as it may be, seems to change the character and usefulness of the Lord’s Prayer, in that it is given a specific, and more limited, focus than it might have as a model prayer. Its strong connection to the Eucharist zeroes in on the verbal coincidence of “bread” so that other possible connections for it all but fade away.

An argument can be made to locate the Lord’s Prayer at the very beginning of the service, perhaps as the concluding part of the Opening Prayer or Prayer of the Day. Such placement might strengthen the Lord’s Prayer as a model to give guidance and inspiration to all prayers.

Or, the Lord’s Prayer could be introduced briefly and then prayed in unison, with the Prayer of the Day inserted before the ascription, “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.” (The ascription is actually not part of the Prayer as the Lord is said to have given it.)

Standing at the opening of worship, the Lord’s Prayer has a more directive posture and serves to make the people liturgically alert to all the prayers that follow.

In your experience, either on Sunday morning or in daily prayer, have you used the Lord’s Prayer at times other than as indicated in the BCW?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

What To Wear?

A seminary classmate of mine served as a “student assistant” in a Philadelphia church where the minister wore striped trousers and a morning coat, common attire for many Protestant clergy back then. The minister generously presented his student with a pair of the pants expecting that he would continue the custom. (He did not.)

Most of us in those days wore the traditional black robe à la the Puritans, called the “Geneva gown,” with or without collar and Geneva tabs, probably with academic hood displaying one’s credentials. And that’s the way it was for a number of years.

Black was the color of choice for sixteenth century Reformed clergy in reaction to the elaborate color and décor of the vestments donned by the Roman Catholics and their kin. Such a splash of design and hue was considered a blinding distraction from the central emphases of worship, namely the proclamation of the Word and administration of the Lord’s Supper…

…until finally Protestants began to catch on that color in dress was not necessarily a distraction, but might help focus the worshippers’ attention on what is taking place. Then we started taking peeks at the garb of our peers down the street and borrowed fashion ideas for our own use. Now, among Protestants, the black pulpit robe is probably somewhat of a rarity.

The black robes in olden times were designated “pulpit gowns,” and were the appropriate costume for a preacher, preaching being most of what he did when leading worship. Only occasionally would he be presiding at the Sacrament of Communion, when the appropriate color would be white. (Worship leaders then were all men, so “he” is accurate.)

Now, for many Protestants, white is the color of choice. One reason is likely that the Ecumenical Movement and joint worship opportunities showed everyone how much more celebrative white is than black. And, after all, worship is supposed to be a celebration.

A woman in the church I served came to me one Sunday after the service and offered to buy me a white alb from the local religious supply store. “That black thing,” she grumped, “is so funereal!” And she was the local funeral director! So I agreed, and from then on I’ve slipped into a bright white vestment whenever I lead worship.

Another reason white is appealing is that we’re beginning to realize that Reformed worship means Word and Sacrament, and that the sacramental garb is always appropriate because it is also appropriate to have the Eucharist every week.

Now I wear a while robe (alb) with a stole representing the yoke of Christ and showing the color of the season of the church year. I don’t bother with the robe cincture—it has a monastic look that seems out-of-place to me—although some of my colleagues do. I also wear a stylized crucifix as well.

It may seem that we’re all making it up as we go along, and in a way that’s true. Yet we are more intentional about what we wear, trying to communicate symbolically about worship and our leadership role.

It’s interesting to see the diversity in dress among worship leaders. It’s a good thing too, as long as we are being careful in our apparel to be liturgically and theologically informative, and not just strutting like peacocks (or peahens) on Sunday morning. Then the Puritans would be right to drape us all in black again.

What is worn by you or your pastor when leading worship? What is communicated to the worshippers by what the presider/leader wears?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Worshipping with Kin

Within the past week or so I’ve participated in two services of congregational worship which any reasonable person would place at opposite ends of the liturgical pole.

The first was a Saturday service at an Orthodox Church of America monastery not far from where I live, and the second was at a Southern Baptist church in Florida where my nephew serves as one of the church’s ministers.

Eastern Orthodox and Southern Baptist churches would appear to be the “high” and “low” of church liturgies, as worship styles are often categorized. Differences are all too easy to spot, and we do enough of that anyway in our society, in particular when we discuss religion .

Those on the “high” end tend to discount those on the “low” end, or in the “middle” as being “non-liturgical.” * And those on the “low” end tend to agree with them, but wear the label proudly. Those of us in the “middle” smugly figure we’ve got it right.

Rather than set the two poles off against each other as a study in contrasts, I think it’s much more interesting, and perhaps more informative as well, to see what, if any, might be the similarities. So let’s look at these two liturgical snapshots and see if we can spy what kinship there might be between the two.

The most obvious thing should be easy: both congregations assembled to praise God and pray in the name of Jesus Christ. In short, they are both Christian churches, and it showed clearly in their worship.

In both services music was of prime importance, especially congregational singing. Music in each service was designed for easy repetition and response from the people in the pews.

Both churches provided choirs and professional musicians to prompt and promote the congregational singing. Solos and duets were sung in each service.

The “presider” in each service was the leader of the religious community.

A number of other people had leadership responsibilities in both services.

Scripture was read, in both cases from one of the Gospels, and was interpreted by means of a sermon.

Each service included the celebration of a Christian sacrament: the Baptists baptized, and the Orthodox celebrated the Eucharist.

Visuals were used in each service to give focus to the liturgy—admittedly very different: iconography and PowerPoint on a screen.

A time for greetings between and among worshippers was incorporated into both services.

Neither church used a printed order of worship. You found out what was coming next when it arrived.

Both services included announcements about other activities of the day and following.

There are probably other similarities that I didn’t take proper note of, but this is enough to remind us that when people gather on the Lord’s Day, there are similarities in their liturgies.

Of course the most important thing that all Christian worship services share is that God has promised to be there. Therein is revealed the unity of our faith and the essential kinship of all worshippers.

Share a worship experience with a friend from a different church background, and see what similarities you can spot.

* The distinction between “non-liturgical” and “liturgical” worship is a false one. What is different from one church to another may be degree of elaborate style, use of ancient prayers, formality, etc., but all worship is “liturgical” in the sense of it being the work of God’s people in praise of the Almighty. Most every church has a standard liturgical order of some sort.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I don’t think we pay enough attention to posture these days. Liturgically, I mean.

When I first started in ministry half a century ago, most congregations were more or less sedentary, with not a lot of movement involved in their worship. People seem to prefer to stay put. So once they had parked in a pew, they’d just as soon settle in for the duration.

Apart from singing hymns and a few other pieces, worship was done sitting down. We sang hymns on our feet because the musicians told us that we’d sing better if we did—a good practical reason.

Most of the hymns and other songs we sang (but not all) were hymns of praise and enthusiasm, and deserved the reverent and respectful posture of standing. There’s theology in that reason, and for most hymns, it’s a viable rationale even now.

Prayer, on the other hand, was almost always done by the congregation sitting down. Not to be boisterous as singing might be, prayer was considered a quiet, personal, even private exercise. With head bowed and eyes closed, each person retreated into his or her own exclusive prayer-chamber.

Not a whole lot has changed these past five decades, at least not in understanding what the different postures might signal in terms of the theology behind our worship. But some things have changed, and point the way to new understanding.

We now stand at other times than just for hymns and songs of praise. We now stand for other reasons than we will sing better vertical, and it’s good to stretch our legs every now and then. We’ll stand to say a creed—confessing faith publically is praising God.

We are clearer now that standing is a posture of honor and respect. So, we stand, for example, for the reading of the Gospel. In the Gospel text, the Word Jesus Christ is most clearly present to us, and it is in reverence that we rise to our feet in greeting and welcome. I also like to think that standing for the Gospel reading indicates we are at attention and ready to hear our marching orders from the Master.

We also are called upon to stand up for the Great Thanksgiving as we approach the Lord’s Table. Again, it is a sign of our need to be attentive and reverential at this Holy Meal wherein we will be fed and nourished by spiritual food. Standing for prayer has biblical precedent to commend it (see 1 Samuel 1:26 and 1 Kings 8:22, as well as Matthew 6:5 and Luke 18:11). Note that kneeling for prayer is biblical also (see Luke 22:41 and Acts 7:60), yet most Presbyterians seem to stay seated instead.

The use of the Psalter on Sundays is a new development for most of us. The Psalm appears as a response to the Old Testament lesson, and is considered a reflection on or response to the reading. Most often, the Psalm is a prayer, and even though it is sung, may be offered seated. There are occasions, perhaps, when we should consider staying seated for a hymn with a prayerful tone.

Seated with heads bowed and eyes closed is not always the preferred posture for prayer. The closed quality of such prayers seems to deny the commonness of our common worship, as though one should go to church and, among the gathered community, indulge in one’s private devotions. If seen this in Catholic services, but in Protestant, even Presbyterian ones as well.

Praying with eyes wide open is a good option to consider. Especially at the Great Thanksgiving, we should be aware of the community around the Lord’s Table. The Prayers of the People deserve our awareness of our sisters and brothers uniting their prayers with our own.

The point is that posture has significance and adds meaning and emphasis to specific acts of worship.

In giving liturgical instructions, of course, about standing or sitting (or kneeling), one needs to be careful about choice of words as they might apply, or not, to worshippers with disabilities.

When do you stand and when do you sit during Sunday worship? What changes would you suggest?

Sunday, October 10, 2010


In many, if not most, Protestant churches these days, members of a congregation come forward each Sunday to read the Scripture lessons. This has become popular since the modern “liturgical renewal movement” was crystallized by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.

The idea is that the Christian Scriptures themselves arose out of the early church gatherings, and even then non-clergy would read from the ancient writings, and from new gospels and letters that would one day become “scripture.” Therefore it’s appropriate to have people from our congregations do the reading today. In many churches, the reader actually emerges from the pew to the lectern as a physical symbol of this meaning.

It’s a good idea because it stresses the responsibility of the people in the pews to be conversant enough with the Bible to be able to read a passage publicly every now and then.

Certainly, a prime principle of the Protestant Reformation was the restoration of the Scripture to the people, available to everyone in their own language. Having lay people read from the Bible in Lord’s Day worship emphasizes that principle.

One other advantage is seen on the other side of the coin. A layperson reading Scripture counters any notion that the Bible belongs to the clergy, as though no one else were worthy of presenting Holy Writ orally. Even if rank clericalism is rare, it can be implied if lay people are not permitted the privilege of reading Sunday’s lessons aloud in worship.

All that being said, there are some issues to be considered.

First of all, not everyone in a given congregation should be a reader. Shyness, incapability, lack of interest, and any one of a hundred other reasons would eliminate one from the list of potential readers. Therefore, some selection process is needed.

The reading of the Word of God in Scripture to the gathered faithful is a critically important task. It requires at the very least people who are capable of communicating what is on the printed page through their voices.

Some Lutheran churches today, for example, will reserve the reader’s role to the deacons. As servants of the worship service, this is one duty that fits their title. But they do not leave it at that. Just because a person is a deacon doesn’t mean that he or she can do the job. So, deacons must be trained to do what deacons do, including read Scripture out loud.

People who would be readers, however selected, should be trained most likely by the pastor. All the important lessons learned in seminary speech classes should be resurrected and taught to the lay readers—projection, inflection, diction, pronunciation (especially of names) and so forth.

Busy pastors may not want to be bothered with this, but there is nothing more deflating than having a great sermon undermined by a poor reading of the Scripture lesson it is based on. If for no other reason than self-protection, pastors will see to it that lay readers are equipped to do an outstanding job.

One way to support initial training is to call brief after-church meetings of lay readers for the up-coming month or season, just to run over the lections they will encounter. This will help their comfort level and improve the quality of their reading.

Lastly we come to the issue of who reads the Gospel. In many churches it is reserved to the preacher (pastor/minister) rather than the lay reader. The reason behind this is that the pastor is the “Minister of Word [and Sacrament]” and by virtue of this office is the one to read that part of God’s Word where Christ is seen in his public ministry. Since as often or not the sermon is rooted in the Gospel reading, this makes considerable sense.

The Gospel narrative is set apart in another important way to indicate that it is of a different quality from the other readings. Because the Gospel presents Christ, the Word Incarnate, it is appropriate that the congregation stand to hear it read as a sign of reverence and respect.

A practical consideration is that it may be good for the preacher to hear the sound of her own voice just before speaking. On the other hand, as a friend of mine suggests, he welcomes the opportunity to hear the Gospel in another voice before he begins to preach on it. Sometimes it prompts a fresh insight for the sermon.

The role of lay readers is an important one, and is worthy of attention and encouragement from the pastor and others responsible for the worship of the congregation.

Do you have lay readers in your congregation? Are they usually deacons? What training do they receive?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Supper with the Saints

Growing up in the Midwest, I was accustomed to seeing stained glass windows in churches. Their bright day-lighted colors and iconic designs portrayed Jesus and his followers and other faithful souls of ancient times.

Coming to the Northeast and New England in particular I encountered another architectural style, simpler, plainer, including clear class in the windows. The Puritan view certainly accounts for the simplicity, wanting as they would to avoid any distractions from prayer and proclamation.

I soon discovered, however, that there was another reason for the clear glass windows, or at least another benefit.

Many of the typical white, steepled, churches in the villages of New England are located next to the burial ground of the church. When gathered for worship, the saints inside the church can look out and see the grave markers of their friends and ancestors, the saints gone before them. Believers gather around the Lord’s Table and a mere glance out the window recalls other faithful souls preceding them in the parade of the people of God.

One of the churches near my home recently built a new worship space attached to their traditional New England style structure. It was erected so that it would be next to the graveyard, and the wall to that side was mostly clear glass to make sure the worshipping congregation could not miss the historical and spiritual presence of the previous generations.

Far from being merely a quaint custom, this New England practice of having windows to look out of rather than just at, has something important to teach us—especially when the view is of the grave stones of the faithful.

There’s something to be said for continuity.

In so many ways, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the world started with us. Neglecting the lessons of history can be a very dangerous thing. For one thing, there is considerable hubris to the idea that we got here on our own, without benefit of the labors of anyone gone before us.

Even in matters of faith, we have all been blessed by the examples set for us by heroes and heroines of the past. Our own kinfolk and others we’ve known have brought us along. But there have also been many we have not known personally, folks we’ve come to know through the stories of God’s faithful through the centuries.

Remembering those saints and recalling them as we worship helps us realize that we are part of an on-going, great and wondrous body of people called the church of Jesus Christ. Such continuity is encouraging and challenging as we plunge onward along the pathways where Christ leads us today. It is also a cause for celebration.

Our Eucharistic liturgy in the Book of Common Worship (1993) provides some clear-glass windows through which we come to the Lord’s Supper with the saints.

The introductory lines to the sung Holy, Holy, Holy make it clear we do not worship God alone:

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with the heavenly choirs
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:

The Eucharistic prayers often conclude with something like this in Great Thanksgiving A:

In union with your church in heaven and on earth,
we pray, O God, that you will fulfill your eternal purpose
in us and in all the world.

or this in Great Thanksgiving B:

Give us strength to serve you faithfully
until the promised day of resurrection,
when with the redeemed of all the ages
we will feast with you at your table in glory.

or again in Great Thanksgiving D:

In your mercy, accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,
as, in communion with all the faithful in heaven and on earth,
we ask you to fulfill, in us and in all creation,
the purpose of your redeeming love.

or from Great Thanksgiving F:

And grant that we may find our inheritance with
[the blessed Virgin Mary, with patriarchs, prophets, apostles,
and martyrs, and]
all the saints who have found favor with you in ages past.
We praise you in union with them
and give you glory through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thanksgiving for and with the saints propels us into the future with confidence in God’s faithfulness, just as God has always been faithful according to many witnesses.

How to you remember the people of the past in your worship? Who are saints to you?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


“This sign [of the cross] was not only used in the churches in very ancient times: it is still an admirably simple reminder of the cross of Christ.” – Martin Bucer

I grant you that Bucer was referring to making the sign of the cross as part of the rite of Baptism. Nevertheless, it’s a noteworthy statement to come from a Protestant reformer in the 16th century. For Bucer, not absolutely everything Roman should be abandoned—there were some things to be retained in the new order. At least in the Sacrament of Baptism, the sign of the cross was found worthy.

Bucer’s sensible attitude has not prevailed in much of Protestantism, especially in the Presbyterian branch. For us, the rule is usually, “If it has so much as a whiff of Roman Catholic to it, it is strictly verboten.” So it goes with the Eucharist, for example. If they celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, then that’s the reason we don’t. God forbid we should become too “Catholic.” In similar fashion, we have mostly managed to steer clear of anything so Romanish as making the sign of the cross.

Except maybe Martin Bucer has prevailed after all. In the Book of Common Worship (1993) the sign of the cross is suggested and permitted in the services of Baptism, by the minister over the people. When the baptized person is anointed with oil, the sign of the cross may be used in its application. (This is true as well when anointing is done in the services of wholeness.) In the Vigil of the Resurrection after the Thanksgiving for Our Baptism, individuals may dip their hands in the water and sign themselves.

The connection of the sign of the cross with Baptism was made powerfully clear to me when the Daily Prayer Task Force, of which I was part, met for four or five days at St. Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana. Our purpose was to experience Daily Prayer with the fathers and brothers.

So we went to church twice a day. As we entered, we could not miss the receptacles with “holy water” inside each door. (The receptacle was the same size and same octagonal shape as the baptismal font in the church I served at the time.) In passing, each monk dipped a hand in the water and made the sign of the cross, head to breast, shoulder to shoulder. The same gesture was repeated as they left.

Being with the Romans, it seemed appropriate to do as the Romans did. As I entered, the water from the “baptismal font” and sign of the cross self-imposed was a reminder that it was by baptism that I came into the church. As I left, the same gesture was a reminder that I was to go out and live my baptism by taking up my cross and following the risen Lord. It didn’t take long for the impact of signing myself to hit me with a wallop. This is a powerful symbolic act, and, as Bucer put it, one that “was not only used in the churches in very ancient times, [but] is still an admirably simple reminder of the cross of Christ.”

I have also worshiped many times with the Monks of New Skete, a monastery-parish of the Orthodox Church of America nearby where I live. The sign of the cross is an integral part of their worship—both as made by the priest and by the people. Signing oneself is a physical way of identifying with what is being said: always when the Trinity is mentioned, often when one identifies with a particular prayer intention or petition, even when one simply affirms faith. In many ways, you sign yourself in Orthodox worship much as an enthusiastic Protestant might shout “Amen!” to a point well taken.

This experience with the folks at New Skete has also enriched my personal use of the sign of the cross. (I tend to cross myself in Orthodox style, ending right shoulder to left, so that my arm is across my chest—this, according to Orthodox interpretation, leaves the person in the posture of prayer.) When I worship there, I feel actively, physically involved in the liturgy.

My usual place of worship is a Lutheran church where a number of people in the congregation sign themselves in the course of the liturgy, and I have grown to feel comfortable in joining them in the custom.

Perhaps many Protestants resist signing themselves because they perceive it as a superstitious act—like the prize fighter making the sign to secure God’s power behind his punch, or the ball player at bat asking for God to help him hit a curve ball, or as a means of garnering less athletic blessings in everyday life. For some it is superstition, just as for some Protestants prayer verges on superstition, a means of getting what we want rather than opening ourselves to what God wants. We do not abandon prayer, however, simply because some treat it in superstitious fashion. Nor should we abandon signing ourselves with the cross of Christ.

Do you sign yourself with the cross? Where and how did you decide to do this? How has making the sign of the cross affected your worship?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I Love a Parade

It’s been years now since I saw a video on liturgical renewal featuring Robert E. Webber, professor at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, but it left a lasting impression on me. In the video, Webber strongly advocated having at the top of the worship service a formal procession of choir and clergy with other worship leaders, moving from the entrance to the front of the room during the congregational singing of a hymn.

I remember being impressed with how strongly he urged viewers to go home and establish a procession as a necessary ingredient to Sunday worship. Webber was sure this would make a significant improvement in the quality of liturgy. I think he had a point.

I don’t remember all Webber’s reasons that everyone ought to start off with an entrance processional, but over the years I’ve come up with my own.

While the active participants in a processional would seem to be the leaders/enablers of the people’s worship, in a real way the people themselves take part. They are not mere bystanders viewing the festivities from the curb. The people are drawn into the procession by their singing, and by following its progress from entrance to front.

The procession will be headed up by a person carrying a large cross—that person is known as a “crucifer,” a cross-bearer. This becomes the visual focus of the procession that all can follow. The cross, of course, is the sign of our risen Lord, whom we are to follow throughout life. As we begin our Lord’s Day worship, we are visually reminded who has led us to this place.

The first words preceding the processional hymn will call the people’s attention to the cross—the people then stand and face the entrance and turn to follow the cross as it passes. This part of the service is led from the baptismal font, which is ideally placed near where people come into the church.

A procession is, like all liturgical actions, symbolic. The parade of worship leaders stands for the entrance of all worshippers as well, and the procession then has the effect of assembling the people into one worshipping community.

There is a certain solemnity to a formal procession. It signals the seriousness of the occasion. We do not “come before” the Almighty casually. The procession in song is in effect an audio-visual call to worship that sets the tome for the whole service.

At the same time, the action is celebrative. We all love parades because they ring with rejoicing, and the procession into church should be no exception. The hymn accompanying the entrance will be up-beat and all will sing full-voiced.

There are those, I suppose, who can go over the top with a processional and make it into a spectacle. The marchers can proceed in lock-step via a round-about route, when all they need to do is go directly from one place to another, rejoicing. There does not need to be fretting and fussing over details. If someone makes a “mistake,” it just proves they are human. Overdoing this entrance parade can make the whole thing stilted and rigid, and ultimately boring.

(The other half of the processional is the exit parade, the recessional. The symbolic significance is very much the same, except now we are entering the world following our Lord. Again the congregation participates in the parade visually and vocally.)

Now all of this is well and good, and having a procession to start off our worship service is a good idea, but there are barriers to what I’ve described—architectural barriers.

For example, in two of the churches where I often preach, a processional of choir and clergy and other worship leaders would be very difficult, if not impossible, without major architectural changes.

In one church, the choir is situated at the back of the congregation, just inside the entrance. So they have no place to process to—they’re already there. This arrangement is designed to provide maximum choral support for congregational singing. It also minimizes treating anthems as performances and encourages choral work as accompaniment to prayerful contemplation.

The other church arrangement is different. The choir is placed behind the pulpit and lectern on a high platform. To get there they’d not only have to climb a number of steps, but funnel through a small gate to their places. When I’ve preached there, the worship leaders assembled in a coat room off the choir loft, and simply took their places when the service was ready to start. The good part of that arrangement is that, considering the configuration of the whole room, the choir is in an excellent position to encourage congregational singing.

For a processional coming in and an exiting recessional, a lot depends on what architecture offers or restricts. Sometimes minor changes or rearrangement of furniture can make enough difference.

Do you have a processional/recessional in your worship service? Do you have a crucifer? Does your architecture present barriers?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Stepping Back

Sometimes it’s just a good idea to take a step back and look at what we’re doing in worship. We can get lost in the details of picking hymns or writing prayers or crafting sermons and lose sight of the larger picture.

There are at least two overarching perspectives to be considered when we ponder the event, the “happening” that we call Christian worship.

Corporate Worship

One is the fact that Christian worship is always corporate worship—a group experience. The Church is essentially a “gathering” of people, those who are “called out” from the general population of humankind, the “ekklesia.” We assemble in “congregations,” from the Latin for “gather together.”

At no time and in no place is the Church more the Church than when gathered at the hour for worship on the Lord’s Day.

There are those who get nervous about such assertions because they think they reject the authenticity of individual prayer, or even suggest that Christians have no solo access to God. On the contrary, understanding worship, all worship, to be corporate, supports the notion of personal prayer.

When we were in the initial stages of planning the Daily Prayer book, we each were assigned a prayer book to use for ourselves. For most of us, this would be a one-person exercise. The one I used was Christian Prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours, published by the Catholic Book Publishing Company in 1976. It is an impressive, if ponderous, 2000-page resource. I used it for more than six months, morning, midday, evening, and night.

I remember clearly one morning sitting at my breakfast table reading aloud the morning service, when there came over me the “aha” realization that I was not doing this alone, that somewhere in many places there were others praying the same prayers, reciting or singing the same psalms, meditating on the same scripture. My little breakfast-table worship was part of the Church’s worship. So it is with every Christian who prays or reads the Word in scripture—that single person is with the whole Church at worship.

One implication of this is, however, that solo prayer or praise without the shared experience of worship with others is on thin ice. It is in the community of God’s people, gathered by God, that we find support and encouragement to bravely open ourselves to the Spirit, submit ourselves not only to God, but to one another “in the Lord,” and welcome change and renewal for our lives. Without that community to hold us upright, our privatization of prayer is in jeopardy of dropping into self-righteous self-service, a self-centered “me-and-God” attitude hardly worthy to be called worship.

Divine Initiative

We’ve got to get over the notion that worship of Almighty God is a really good idea that we dreamed up. It’s not our idea at all. It’s God’s.

Here’s that New Testament word for Church again: “ekklesia,” referring to those who are “called out” by God to be God’s own people, summoned by Christ to be his disciples.

This is why we use a Call to Worship at the beginning of our services, words from Holy Scripture summoning us to come together and praise God. This is clearly not our summons, it is God’s.

If the local custom is to begin the Sunday morning gathering with announcements, there would appropriately be a welcome from the worship leader to all, especially visitors, newcomers. This should not be given from the pulpit or lectern, but from the aisle among the people, in order to distinguish it from God’s welcome in the Call to Worship, spoken from pulpit or platform.

It’s important to remember this Divine Initiative. We don’t come on our own motivation to worship in order to reach out to God. Flip that around. We come to worship because God has already reached out to us in Jesus Christ, and called us to come celebrate that glorious fact.

A good part of Christian liturgy is remembering (anamnesis) what God has done in order to be more alert to what God is doing in our lives, in our world. God has taken the first step in accomplishing our salvation in the Incarnation, the entrance of the Divine into human form, into human history. In the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God has called us, claimed our lives. Because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, we know God’s persistent presence with us, within us.

Our worship, then, is response to the Divine Initiative, a ritual of common remembering and thanksgiving, renewed commitment, and celebration.

These are two broad but critical matters to keep in mind about worship, yet I’m sure you can think of others equally as important. Drop me a comment or two.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Being Picky

Preparing a sermon isn’t necessarily the hardest part of getting ready for Sunday. There is always the selection of what hymns to sing.

Sometimes rummaging through some 600 hymns in the Presbyterian Hymnal to snag three or four perfect ones for a particular Lord’s Day can be an arduous task. So it helps to have a plan, a process for locating fitting songs for the congregation to sing in praise of God and in affirmation of their faith.

Finding the needle-like hymns in the hymnal-haystack can be made easier if you know what all the choices are. We preachers are more occupied with the texts before us and think in terms of words rather than music. Therefore, it is a good idea to enlist the cooperation of our musical colleagues, the choir directors, organists, and ministers of music whom we work with.

Here’s an idea: Set aside an evening for clergy, musicians and worship planners and leaders to gather around the piano and sing through the hymnal. Of course, you won’t get very far in just a couple of hours, but you might well cover hymns for an up-coming season, at least enough to make selecting the right ones for those Sundays easier. The process can be repeated several times through the year, and you can bet that after a while clergy will know better what the possibilities are.

With the foundation of the sing-along sessions supporting them, clergy and musicians will be better equipped to fulfill other criteria in the selection of hymns.

A primary consideration, of course, is that the hymns (at least the one following the sermon) appropriately connect with the preached message. When the hymns and the proclamation from the pulpit jibe, the message is reinforced considerably. Singing enables memory, and the sung words of a hymn will stick in the congregation’s consciousness beyond the front door of the church.

Furthermore, a thematic agreement among the hymns and sermon provides integrity to the whole service. This is no small thing. When hymns are randomly chosen and plopped in the designated slots without thought, the orderliness of the worship service is left in shambles. Such disarray is not lost on the worshipper but translates into confusion of faith.

Worship planners also need to pay attention to the location of the hymn in the order of service. Sometimes, for example, the hymn following the sermon may also provide a suitable lead-in for what comes next, the prayers of the people. Opening hymns will most likely be praise-oriented, but may also introduce the time of confession and pardon. How the hymn moves the service along is an important consideration.

In the sing-along sessions, clergy and musicians will find wonderful hymns with melodies that are less than easily singable. These can be flagged for introduction by the choir as anthems in services prior to the service when they will be sung by the congregation. It’s okay also to have a brief rehearsal for the congregation during the announcements before the beginning of the service.

Inevitably, people will clamor for selection of the “golden oldies.” There’s no denying that there are in the church’s song bag a number of wonderful hymns, and it would be a mistake to neglect them. Novelty is not everything. Hymn selection is a balancing act, and the old and the new can work well together.

We should never underestimate the power and value of hymnody in our worship. Someone once said that most of us Christians learn our theology from the hymns we sang as we were growing up, and those we sing now. Therefore, it is critical that we pay attention to the theology expressed in hymns. Is the hymn individualistic, a me-and-God approach, or does it place the worshipper in the company of faith? Does the hymn offer only rewards at the end of life, or does it point to resources to meet life’s challenges now? Is God perceived as our buddy and pal, or as the Other, the Almighty who is nevertheless reaching toward us? And so forth.

It’s an important task to be performed in picking hymns, and it’s necessary to be picky about it.

What kind of process is followed in your church to choose hymns? Do the clergy and musicians consult regularly about hymn selection?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Listening to the Lectionary

I’m a lectionary preacher. Not that every sermon rises out of the assigned lessons, but I always start there. Circumstances can send me off on another track, but even then, providentially it would seem, the lectionary sometimes provides a pertinent word.

In my last post, I wrote, “There’s a lot of meditation and contemplation that goes into a sermon.” It helps to read texts frequently so you get inside them as much as they are inside you. The sermon text then is never far from the surface of consciousness. It tugs at the preacher’s mental sleeve nagging for another thought, another brief meditation on its meaning, one more contemplation of what God is saying to the preacher and to the people. This sort of meditation can wake one up in the middle of the night.

Yet there is a more formal sort of meditation as well. It’s nothing new, of course. I learned about it in Sunday School when I had to memorize the First Psalm. There was that line about those who “delight in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”

Taking time to think and pray about the biblical texts for next Sunday through the week is an essential. It is a way of listening to the lectionary, or more accurately, listening to the Sprit speaking the Word in scripture. Obviously this is worth pursuing in the course of sermon preparation, if not at other times.

This is akin to an ancient practice that has become fashionable again: Lectio Divina. Benedictine monks would indulge regularly in a measured reading of Scripture with time to ponder its meaning. They named this spiritual style of reading, Lectio Divina, which can be translated as “divine reading,” “sacred reading,” or “holy reading.”

There is a process to Lectio Divina. One begins with reading the text with concentration (Lectio); then there is time for pondering what God is saying in the text (Meditatio); next one has a sort of conversation with God in prayers of listening and commitment (Oratio); finally there is a quiet concentration on the presence of God, and peace (Contempatio). Not a bad guide for those pondering the texts in preparation for preaching from them.

The most interesting thing about this is that meditation on the biblical text is carried over into the Lord’s Day worship. Everyone, not only the preacher, is to ponder the meaning of what is read and to make that pondering personal.

The Book of Common Worship (1993) flags this when it suggests that the reading of scripture be prefaced with a “Prayer for Illumination.” The prayers provided are all invitations to participate in a Lectio Divina sort of process.

The reading of Scripture is introduced with the rubric and announcement:
“The reader may then say:
“Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.”
Each passage is followed by a proclamation that the reading has presented the “Word of God” with a response of thanks from the people—and then the rubric: “Silence may be kept.” All of this suggests a Lectio Divina kind of approach.

My experience in the pews these days is that pausing for silent reflection following the hearing of Scripture is more neglected than observed. I think it has a real place in our worship. I wish that the rubric here would have been more directive than permissive and said: “Silence is kept.”

Listening is a vital ingredient in Christian worship. In a time when we are besieged by words, words, words, it is easy to miss the Word whispered by the Spirit.

In your worship service, is there silent time to take quiet counsel with God on the Scripture readings?

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Here’s a very personal subject for discussion: How do you prepare your sermons?

The reason it’s so personal is that every one has his or her own way of doing it. Especially if you’ve been cranking them out for a number of years, and you’ve found the way that “works” for you.

Recently I’ve had three successive Sundays in the pulpit, thanks to vacation schedules of my friends. This has forced me back into a discipline of preparation. I remember Frederick Buechner expressing great admiration for the weekly preacher—he had weeks, even months between sermons and could only imagine how difficult it must be to squeeze preparation into a week. A planned agenda of sermonizing, however, does make it manageable.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve worked out, assuming an every Sunday preaching responsibility, and I have only one week to pull it together.

On the Sunday afternoon the week before, I print out and prayerfully read the Scripture passages from the lectionary for the next Sunday. This is the beginning of time set aside each day through the week for “sermonizing”. In those days I move through working with commentaries and doing some exegesis; scribbling notes on a wide variety of pertinent ideas; jotting possible sermon titles; trying to put in a sentence or two the message of the sermon; noting connections from real-life events to the Scripture; developing an outline of the sermon with major points and subheadings and finalizing the title.

Starting the first Sunday afternoon with the reading of the texts, there is an almost constant thinking about the sermon, looking for connections, some word or event that will illustrate and enlighten. There’s a lot of meditation and contemplation that goes into a sermon. Someone once noted how hard it is to convince your spouse that you’re working when you’re standing there looking out the window. But sometimes that’s the most productive work.

Friday morning, when I’m fresh, I sit at the computer and, with a deep breath and a prayer, I have a go at it. I’m often surprised when what I come up with is not exactly what I planned—I like to think the Spirit is meddling and nudging me in better directions.

The rest of Friday and all day Saturday, I try to stay away from the sermon until Saturday evening. It gives me a chance to get some distance on what I’ve written, enabling me to see it and “listen” to it more objectively, more like someone in the pews might.

Saturday night I turn to my editor-in-chief, my wife, to give it a going over. She’s great at spotting wordy language and fancy words nobody but me would use. She’ll also tell me what’s weak or sloppy. Then I do another rewrite. Even if she has no suggestions or corrections, I’ll go through it again and rewrite.

Sunday morning, I’m up early to go through it again and rewrite if necessary before I leave for church. I will get there with time to spare for going through the manuscript a final time to hear how it sounds, and make marks in red ink accordingly.

Now, you understand that this is the plan for me. Of necessity, the agenda may be compressed. Still this kind of schedule sets a target for me to aim at. I know it’s only one way to approach the preacher’s task, and I’d be interested in seeing what works for others.

So how do you prepare to preach? What works for you? What doesn’t work? And if you’re not a preacher, why not talk to your preacher about his or her process?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Prep Prayers

One of my favorite prayers comes from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. I happen to like it in the Edwardian English of its time. It’s titled “For the Spirit of Prayer.”

"ALMIGHTY God, who pourest out on all who desire it, the spirit of grace and of supplication; Deliver us, when we draw nigh to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with stedfast thoughts and kindled affections, we may worship thee in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

It’s a worthwhile prayer to ask that we might pray passionately and minus as many distractions as we can reasonably shut out. One does not “draw nigh” to the Almighty casually. It’s an act one has to warm up to. And it takes some focus. A warm heart and concentrated mind are worth praying for before you pray.* We should pray before the service actually begins, in preparation for our fullest participation in the main event.

Entering into the worship of Almighty God usually requires a shift of gears: from our individual lives to a corporate experience; from mundane and trivial values to divine eternal truths; from our own selfishness to learning of God’s generosity; and so forth. Sometimes it is not an easy transition. So we need to pray before we pray, a prayer preparing us to worship God in prayer.

This prayer, in an up-dated revised form, is one of some 45 models provided in a section called “Prayers for Use Before Worship” in The Book of Common Worship (1993) (pp. 17-30). They call us to get ready in advance for the time of worship on the Lord’s Day, or any time for that matter. Some of them you might offer up to get yourself in the right frame of mind and heart
even before you pray privately, just as we are supposed to do before we worship corporately.

The practice of prep prayer that is urged here for everyone is especially important for those who compose liturgy. Writing prayers for church congregations is a shuddering responsibility. Not only do we approach God, but we are brazen enough to suppose we can find prayerful language for others.

So here’s another pre-prayer, a confession worship leaders might offer at their desks on Saturday night. It comes from The Worshipbook (page 202).

"Almighty God: you have no patience with solemn assemblies, or heaped-up prayers to be heard by people. Forgive those who have written prayers for congregations. Remind them that their foolish words will pass away, but that your word will last and be fulfilled, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

How do you prepare for worship? Are specific prayers suggested for worshippers? If you are a worship leader, how do you get ready for preparing worship? How do you prepare for your own daily prayers?

* Halford Luccock in Living Without Gloves (Oxford University Press, 1957—pp. 94-95), suggested that the opposite of coldness of heart and wandering of mind would be a cool mind and a wandering heart—also worth praying for if we want to think clearly and reach out with heartfelt empathy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


This is a true story.

It was the early 1960s, and the American flag stood off in the corner of the sanctuary of the church I served. One morning the custodian reported that the flag, because of its severe age, had become tattered and worn beyond repair. The senior pastor (I was the assistant at the time) told the custodian to dispose of it according to the flag code, and so it was burned.

“I never liked having the American flag there,” the senior pastor said. “It really doesn’t belong in the church.” And so it came to pass that the American flag was not replaced. This elicited not one comment, positive or negative.

Shift the scene to the height of the Viet Nam War six or more years later, when I am senior pastor. Along with my associate, I’ve been outspoken against the war. Now someone notices there is no American flag in the sanctuary, which must mean that the pastors had it removed in protest of American policy.

Lengthy conversations ensue among elders and pastors and parishioners about the flag. The session says no flag, some vocal members say yes, the American flag. And after a while, the session relents and orders two flags, one American and one Christian, directing that they be placed in the sanctuary with the Christian flag in the place of honor over the American flag. That elicited even more strident comments with implications that church leaders were communist or at the very best “pink.” The flags nevertheless remained in that arrangement.

Now, I tell this story to illustrate the problem with the national flag in the sanctuary and why I agree heartily with the senior pastor’s wisdom almost half a century ago. The American flag does not belong in a church’s place of worship.

There are, however, people of strong conscience and good will who would support the display of the American flag in American churches. They remind us how grateful we should be to live in a country which provides and protects freedom of worship. The Stars and Stripes in our sanctuary is but a friendly reminder of that fact. Without the freedom guaranteed in this country, our ability to worship freely could and probably would be severely curtailed. So it is only a proper show of appreciation.

The argument is, I think, a feeble one. Christians have found themselves time and again in countries with uncaring and even hostile rulers, subject to discrimination and vicious persecution. Yet they still managed to worship God in spite of no support from government.

The other point is that it is difficult to see Old Glory displayed in a sanctuary without thinking politically (in the worst sense of the word). Just as the church members during the Viet Nam War read the absence of the American flag as something nefarious, and wanted it put back to show support for a governmental foreign policy, the symbolism of the flag speaks of national virtues, not Christian ones.

Balancing the American flag with the Christian flag (a red cross on the blue corner of a white flag) does not help. The Christian flag was invented by a Sunday school teacher, using the red-white-blue of the Stars and Stripes in his design of a banner to provide symmetry in the sanctuary. It may do that, but it perpetuates, and in a way blesses, the use of the American flag, and adds little more.

The real problem with the display of the American flag in a Christian place of worship is that it becomes a symbol competing with other liturgical symbols. It speaks of another loyalty that sometimes conflicts with the Christian’s highest loyalty to God. Liturgically, nothing should be in the worship space that competes with or distracts from the whole hearted worship of Almighty God.

This does not mean that Christians should not express loyalty to our country and show patriotism. Of course we should. At the same time loyalty and patriotism do not require universal and eternal consent—dissent built on Christian foundations can be truly patriotic.

So let’s get the flags out of the sanctuary—both of them. Use the space for symbols that speak of God’s grace and love shown in Jesus Christ.

Do you have an American flag in your place of worship? A Christian flag? What do you think, should they be there?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sermon As Sacrament(al)

When I was a preacher-in-training, the strong urging of one of my homiletics professors was for me and my colleagues to “get out of the way so Christ can be seen.” Another suggested that we should think of ourselves when preaching as “stepping aside to introduce Christ to the people.” So it came to pass that we all went out and ordered black pulpit robes so as to efface ourselves, put ourselves in the background, and I suppose, cover up any loud ties we might be brazen enough to wear. I don’t know that those urgings or suggestions were overwhelming influences, but through the years I’ve seen the truth in them.

Early in my ministry when it was the custom to observe the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper infrequently, I saw preaching as primarily “interpretation of the Word of God in Scripture.” In time, the celebration of Communion gradually moved from quarterly to twenty-six or more times a year, as it was when I retired, and my perspective about preaching changed.

What happened was that I increasingly appreciated the balance between Word and Sacrament. They were not different things, but different ways of presenting the same person, the risen Christ. As Christ is believed to be “really present” in the Lord’s Supper (and, for that matter, in Baptism too), so Christ preached becomes present in the sermon as well.

I’m convinced that preaching is at least “sacramental,” if not a sacrament in its own right. It all has to do with the Incarnation, that God chose to come to us in a real person, a human being. Now, after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, we have these ways of continuing our relationship with him: the Sacraments, and the proclamation of the Word, the living Christ.

Both the Sacraments and the Word are very physical (read “incarnational”) experiences. Baptism is a bath, washing, cleansing, done with water, an act and element essential for living. The Lord’s Supper is a meal, food and drink, nourishment, again acts and things necessary for life. The sacraments reveal to us the presence of the living Christ, incarnate again in physical things in order to be incarnate in his people, the Body of Christ.

The Word we preach, of course, is the Word of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. We’re not to proclaim mere words, not even the words of the Bible, since we all know that words can be cloudy and smoggy and obscure rather than reveal. The Word, however, is proclaimed in a most physical way, through the body and voice of a person. If the Word which is Christ is to be recognized, in this instance it must happen through a human being.

Physical elements or actions in the sacraments do not in themselves “make” Christ present. The celebration of the sacraments includes the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit; in baptism (BCW, p. 411):
"Send your Spirit to move over this water
that it may be a fountain of deliverance and rebirth."
and Eucharist (BCW p. 72):
"Gracious God,
pour out your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these your gifts of bread and wine…
By your Spirit make us one with Christ…."

Neither does the physical person preaching cause Christ to be present. There is something liturgically akin to the epiclesis here too, calling on the Spirit to reveal him. When the Word is proclaimed in the liturgy, it is preceded by the “Prayer for Illumination,” and the admonition: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” (BCW p. 61) This ritual, introductory to the scripture-sermon proclamation, indicates the role of the Spirit in preaching, strongly reminiscent of the Spirit’s role in the sacraments. It is not the preacher who “introduces Christ’ to the congregation, any more than Christ is found present in the water of baptism or the bread and wine on the table. It is, in all three, the Spirit.

At the risk of sounding mystical, I witness to this role of the Spirit in my experience of preaching. I find that I really do hear the Word proclaimed to me in the preparation of sermons—it’s as though I must be the recipient of the Word before I can be the Word’s conveyer. What’s more, in delivering sermons, I find a dynamic working in and through me that is not of my contriving. I recognize that to be God’s Spirit, revealing the risen Christ in our midst.

It is clear to me that proclamation of the Gospel is inseparably linked to the administration of the sacraments. All are instituted by Christ; preaching in Mark 16:15: “And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.’” All are designed to show Christ present to his followers, and all include calls to renewed discipleship and service. While preaching may not be a sacrament as theologically defined, it certainly has sacramental qualities.

“Ministers of Word and Sacrament,” in fulfilling both sets of responsibilities, become the vehicles for the Word to come again, to be incarnate once more in the lives of preacher, presider, and the people in the pews.

If you are a preacher, does it make any difference whether preaching is “sacramental” or “interpretation of Scripture”? What kind of difference does it make for you if you’re a pew-sitter?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Anticipatory Delight

In the previous post we considered “remembrance” in the Lord’s Supper, how the story of God’s love is rehearsed from Creation forward through the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. In the process this Salvation History is brought again into the present, and Christ is recognized as being in the midst of those who break the bread and lift the cup.

Now we turn to the opposite direction and look toward the horizon, to the future.

When I was a little person, the mere thought of an approaching birthday or Christmas had its own measure of fun and excitement. That time was filled with promise and hope—possibilities of desired gifts and the chance to see grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Lots to look forward to. And the looking forward was in itself an important experience of anticipatory delight.

Celebration of the Lord’s Supper has something of the same kind of anticipatory delight, looking forward with great expectation to the fulfillment of God’s promises and the return of the ascendant Christ to rule.

The Words of Institution set the tone with the final sentence in the voice of the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 11:26 – italics mine):
"Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord,
until he comes. "

Using the first Great Thanksgiving (Book of Common Worship (1993), pp. 69 ff.) as a model, we can see how strong this expectant mood is in the Lord’s Supper. In the middle of the prayer, the bread and wine are set apart for this holy use with these words, concluding with an expectant phrase (italics mine):
"Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and this wine
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
as we await the day of his coming. "

Four alternative acclamations are given, any one of which shifts from past to present and then to anticipation of the future (italics mine):
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.
Dying you destroyed our death,
rising you restored our life.
Lord Jesus, come in glory.
We remember his death,
we proclaim his resurrection,
we await his coming in glory.
When we eat this bread and drink this cup,
we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus,
until you come in glory.

At the end of the prayer we see how important our anticipation of God’s future is to our living in the present. There is longing for what God has promised, yet that yearning becomes the motivation for faithful discipleship in following Jesus (italics mine):
"In union with your church in heaven and on earth,
we pray, O God, that you will fulfill your eternal purpose
in us and in all the world.
Keep us faithful in your service
until Christ comes in final victory,
and we shall feast with all your saints
in the joy of your eternal realm."

This boomerang effect, yearning for the future fulfillment of promise and hope and living life in faith and expectation that it is on the way, is a figure of speech called “prolepsis,” referring to something future as though it’s already done or existing. Just as anamnesis re-calls the past into the present, prolepsis anticipates the future as a present reality.

This is radically different from living in the future. Some folks focus their theology on the certainty of going to heaven, seeing life as it is in the here and now as merely marking time. This is commonly ridiculed as “pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye.” The upshot of this approach is that we don’t have to do anything, because God will work everything out in the future the way it’s supposed to be. On the contrary, the followers of Jesus are to live lives toward the fulfillment God promises, lives that are consistent with the teaching and ministry of Jesus who will come again.

Now it becomes clear that both the anamnesis, re-calling God’s mighty acts of the past into the present, and prolepsis, present anticipation of God’s promises all fulfilled, conspire to make the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper an essential and central rite of the Christian church. The Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic prayer, pulls together past and future to the present enrichment of Christian discipleship in the world.

In your church, does the Eucharistic prayer contain both anamnesis and prolepsis? What other parts of the liturgy suggest re-calling the past and anticipating the future with joy?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Don't Forget

The Words of Institution of the Lord’s Supper come to us from the Apostle Paul as the instructions he received from the Lord about the meal to be shared “in remembrance” of Jesus. (I Cor. 11:23-26) Sometimes the Greek word Paul used is also translated as “in remembering,” occasionally “in memory of,” yet the English words all fall short of conveying what is meant in the context of the Lord’s Supper.

Therefore, scholars fall back on the original Greek word employed by Paul, which is “anamnesis”. Our word “amnesia,” loss of memory, is derived from this word. So an-amnesis means literally not-loss-of-memory, the opposite of amnesia. Anamnesis is all about having memory, being mindful, not forgetting, being reminded, remembering, recalling.

Yet even this most literal translation is insufficient. Anamnesis means recalling in the sense of re-calling. Rather than thinking backward into the past to remember Jesus, anamnesis re-calls the past into our present. In sharing the bread and passing the cup at the Lord’s Table we remember Jesus. Yet more than acknowledging that there was a man by that name a long, long time ago in a far-off land, we here and now re-call his life and teaching, his tragic death and triumphant resurrection and ascension. We call Jesus anew and meet him in the here and now. In the breaking of bread, our eyes are open and we recognize him, just as it was for those first followers of his. (Luke 24:30-31)

We speak of “the real presence” of Christ in the sacrament, which is supported by anamnesis. Memorializing Jesus, however, remembering him as a figure of past history, undermines this central theme. We do this sometimes with the best of intentions. On Maundy Thursday worship leaders might have a table set in the front of the sanctuary with twelve plates and trays of cups to mimic the original Last Supper. Or, using the Words of Institution along as the text for the breaking of bread and lifting the cup can send the whole experience into a rehearsal of a past event. As someone impiously put it, “Too often the Lord’s Supper becomes little more than a memorial to a dead Jew.” Rather, every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an encounter with the living Christ.

Anamnesis finds full expression in the Eucharistic prayer, the Great Thanksgiving. With thanks, the story of God’s way with God’s own people is re-called in a summary of Salvation History from Creation through covenants made and the voices of the prophets, to the coming of Jesus, the Christ. The life and ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and his ascension, are re-called in considerable detail. God’s actions of the past become present realities, re-called now in the worship experience.

As we approach the Lord’s Table and hear the instructive Words of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, we are told by Jesus to perform acts of non-forgetfulness. Bread and wine are the elements, but the acts of not-forgetting are eating and drinking. In the sacramental actions performed in obedience to our Lord’s command, we meet him face-to-face. These actions, then, become the down payments on all our obedient actions as we follow him into the world. The Lord’s Supper is food for our journey as disciples of Jesus, nourishing us as we pick up his ministry where we are.

Now as we remember Jesus, we re-call what his ministry means for us, for example: giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners (Matthew 25:31-46); bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19); and the many other instructions and challenges of his teaching, parables, and actions throughout his life and ministry.

In short, the anamnesis in the Lord’s Supper brings home to us the reality of our calling as Christians. This is not a ritual act isolated unto itself without consequences. Eating the bread and drinking the wine are acts of obedience to the risen Christ who said “…eat…drink….” It is by these acts that we commit ourselves to be obedient disciples in following his lead. So we pray in the Great Thanksgiving, “As this bread is Christ's body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.”

In what ways have you experienced the Lord’s Supper where Christ is a real presence? What in the liturgy has contributed to that experience? What has detracted?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Presider

I was invited to be the “guest presider” at one of the churches in our presbytery a while back. Which means that all they wanted me to do was preside at the Lord’s Supper.

The Presbyterian congregation was joining for the Sunday service with a neighbor Episcopal church. A visiting priest from New York City would preach, and the local Episcopal pastor would lead in other parts of the service.

The Presbyterian session was anxious to have a Presbyterian minister administer Communion, since their pastor would be away. Taking seriously the provisions of the Directory for Worship, they recruited me. “For reasons of order the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper shall be administered by a minister of the Word and Sacrament….”(W-2.4012c)

Of course there are other possibilities, commissioned lay pastors, for example, and even elders under certain circumstances. But “for reasons of order,” it should be a minister.

The Roman Catholic Church requires that the Eucharist be administered by a priest, especially one ordained in “apostolic succession.” They are very concerned with “order,” in this as in other ways.

The Roman polity, a top-down hierarchy, prescribes a fairly rigid order as a means of control. During the exhilarating years following Vatican II, we took advantage of some laxity and some looking the other way, and even had experiences of “con-celebrating” the Sacrament with our Roman brothers, as well as presiding at tables where Catholics and Protestants came together. But those days are gone. Order has been restored in the Roman Church.

One might say, for discussion’s sake, “What’s the difference between them and us? Presbyterians require order also.” The difference is that our hierarchical polity is bottom-up rather than top-down, and those who preside are elected from and by the people. Our polity assures that Communion is celebrated by the whole church, of which the presider is the representative. It’s a very different kind of orderliness.

A better reason than “order” for ministers to preside at the Lord’s Table is found in the latter part of the line from the Directory for Worship: “…the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper shall be administered by a minister of Word and Sacrament.” The Sacrament is linked to the Word. The proclamation of the Word in Scripture and sermon and the sharing of God’s gifts in the Sacrament both present the risen Christ.

Therefore, the presider at the Sacrament should be one who is also authorized to proclaim the Word, namely a “minister of Word and Sacrament.” This is not a new idea. The Scots Confession (3.22) has it this way:
“Two things are necessary for the right administration of the sacraments. The first is that they should be ministered by lawful ministers, and we declare that these are men appointed to preach the Word, unto whom God has given the power to preach the gospel, and who are lawfully called by some Kirk.” (The other necessary thing is that the Sacrament should be “ministered in the elements and manner which God has appointed.”)

In a previous post I wrote about the problem with the Lord’s Supper celebrated detached from the liturgy of the Word. Word and Sacrament are a matched set. It is the Minister of Word and Sacrament who should keep them together. Ordination is the way we assign necessary responsibilities in the church. Ordination helps keep things in order. If we are to do our worship “decently and in order,” the presider at the Table should be one ordained to proclaim the Word.

Now I confess that I wondered how this “guest presider” thing would work for me. After all, I would not be the preacher. So would it be proper for me only to preside at the Lord’s Table? Reflecting on the experience, I had no misgivings whatsoever. I presided, but the other clergy joined me in serving the people, and we served one another. It was truly the Sacrament of the whole church, and an ecumenical blessing besides.

Does it make any difference to you whether or not it is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament presiding at the Lord’s Supper? Have you experienced Communion in other denominations?