Sunday, January 31, 2010

It's Your Choice

One of the nifty things about the Book of Common Worship 1993 is that it offers abundant choices throughout the liturgy.

A particularly important choice, to my way of thinking, is presented in the three places one might use the familiar “Words of Institution.”*

The instructions in the BCW introduction are terse, and not particularly helpful:
“The minister, or the one authorized to preside, invites the people to the Lord's table using suitable words from scripture. If the words of institution (1 Cor. 11:23-26, or Gospel accounts: Matt. 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-20) will not be spoken at the breaking of bread or included in the great thanksgiving, they are said as part of the invitation.”
Clearly, as far as the rubrics go, it’s your choice.

Although, if you exegete the second sentence, you can surmise that the writers of the introduction have a preference for using the Words of Institution at the “breaking of bread.”
Second choice, then, would be in the midst of “the great thanksgiving,” and coming in last is “as part of the invitation.”

A lot of people would not get bent out of shape by this. “Any one of the three is fine, what difference does it make?”

Well, it does make a difference. The placement of the Words of Institution in the Eucharistic liturgy colors the mood of the meal.

Calvin, so I’m told, preferred the Words of Institution to be at the top, right at the beginning of the sacrament as a way of holding up the warrant that allows Jesus’ followers to have the meal. It is not just permission to have the meal, but Jesus’ command. So we do as we’re told.

The problem, I think, with having the Words of Institution at the top, as part of the Invitation, is that it makes a strong connection of the whole Sunday morning meal with the Last Supper. There is a dark tone to the meal. This undercuts the Easter celebration inherent in every Sunday observance, which is better served by using Luke 13:29 and Luke 24:30, 31 for the Invitation. The Eucharist is table fellowship with the crucified and risen Lord.

Inserting the Words of Institution into the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer is the second option offered. I’ve done it as written, but I find it difficult for a very simple reason. There is a shift that I find distracting to me as presider as well as pew-sitter. The Words of Institution seem more pertinent when addressed to the worshippers than to the worshipped One. Do we have to convince God that we have authorization to celebrate this Meal? It just seems out of place to say the Words of Institution in the context of this prayer.

So, we’re left with the last option, which I suspect was the first choice of the BCW compilers: the Words of Institution are said at the breaking of bread, what is called “the fraction.”
Now the images of that night of betrayal and Jesus’ arrest connect directly with our participation in the sacrament. It’s not only our obedience to his commands to eat and drink at this meal at issue here, but our obedience to all his commands to love and serve God by loving and serving our neighbors. Let us not betray him. The Words of Institution at this point also make clear the cost of following and obeying Jesus.

So, that’s my choice. Although I’m sure that arguments can be made for the other placements. On Passion Sunday, the Words of Institution would stand well at the beginning, just as at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday—and weaving the Words of Institution into the Great Thanksgiving might work best other times. It’s your choice. But make it thoughtfully.

One personal note here: Especially if you opt to use the Words of Institution at the breaking of bread, please, please memorize them—and please, say them with feeling. It is distracting to see the presider looking under his/her arm at the text as he/she is lifting the cup to offer it as the New Covenant sealed in Christ’s blood. It is depressing to hear him/her mumble in monotone just to get through it.

Where do you have the Words of Institution when you celebrate the Eucharist? Why?

*The Words of Institution as recorded in the Book of Common Worship 1993 are:

See 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Luke 22:19-20
The minister breaks the bread in full view of the people, saying:
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.
The minister lifts the cup, saying:
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.
Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord,
until he comes.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Two-edged Baptism

It’s probably safe to say that most church-related folks think of baptism as the event that marks the entry of an individual into the community of faith.

What happens in the sacrament is that the person receiving the sacred bath becomes a Christian, officially. One image used to describe this happening: the person “dies” and is “raised” with Christ to “live a new life” with him. Another very physical image is that the baptizand is thereby “incorporated” into the “body of Christ,” the church, becoming a “member.”

Simple enough. Baptism is the way one takes on the Christian identity, is linked solidly with the Risen Lord, and enters upon a life-long journey of shared discipleship with others so identified.

In order to accomplish this, however, it’s expected that certain promises, commitments, affirmations will be made. Usually these are in “Q&A” format, but sometimes a creedal statement is used, like the Apostles’ Creed, which scholars tell us was in fact originally a baptismal creed.

In the Book of Common Worship (1946), parents presenting a child answered this question: “…do you confess your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour; and do you promise, in dependence on the grace of God, to bring up your Child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?” An adult standing before the font had four other questions to answer, essentially getting at the same thing.

The Worshipbook (1970) updated the liturgical language, and rearranged the questions somewhat, but covered much the same territory. The new liturgical contribution in the Worshipbook was a question directed head-on to the congregation about their responsibility “to tell this new disciple (this child) the good news of the gospel….”

Up to this point in the recent development of liturgy, however, only one side of the baptismal blade was honed. The Book of Common Worship (1993) whetted the other edge razor sharp with a series of questions to the parents/guardians or adult, starting with this introduction:
“Within this covenant God gives us new life, guards us from evil, and nurtures us in love. In embracing that covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.
“(The minister then asks the following questions of the candidates for baptism and/or the parents or guardians of children being presented for baptism.)
“As God embraces you within the covenant, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which we baptize.”

This is followed by three alternative sets of questions, each of which begins with a question asking, in one way or another, the parent/guardian or candidate to “turn from the ways of sin” and “renounce evil and its power in the world.” Renunciation of evil is the first step of turning toward Christ. The questions and answers spell out the meaning of repentance, “turning around,” facing the other direction,” away from all that is bad and wrong in the world to the only One who is good and righteous.

Lest you think this is something new, the renunciation of evil at baptism dates back to the early centuries of the church, and has continued off and on in various and sundry forms. I don’t know why it fell to the roadside for Presbyterians, but I can imagine why it has been recaptured in the current liturgy.

Signing on with the church of Jesus Christ comes at a cost. It’s not enough to say, “Sure, I believe in Jesus Christ….” The other edge of being a Christian is to reject all that keeps one from Jesus Christ, all that is against Christ, all that is evil.

Renouncing evil and turning away from sin takes positive effort, not just passive avoidance. It’s more than just trying to stay out of trouble and being nice. It also means rejection of what is wrong in the world, ethical denial of sinful behavior.

Evil comes in many shapes, of course, and it’s not always easy to recognize it, much less reject it, especially when it’s alluring and seductive. Which is why there is a church that welcomes us at baptism to give us “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” we so dearly need. Repentance is an on-going activity in the Christian life. Over and over again we have to pivot our lives around away from the disaster of sin to face the healing forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ.

Baptism needs these two edges, renunciation as well as affirmation. Otherwise the affirmation will grow blunt over time and lose its keenness of witness and service.

Does your church use the renunciation of evil in the baptismal liturgy?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ten Reasons to Celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter

Before you know it Lent will be upon us and the in the blink of an eye it will be Easter. Now’s the time to be thinking about Holy Week and special services, especially about the Great Vigil of Easter.* If you have not had this service, then I urge you to start planning it now, for the following reasons:

1. The Easter Vigil is one of the most important and richest services of the entire year. The major themes of the Christian faith find expression in the readings, music, and prayers of the liturgy. Ancient texts sing and speak again in this traditional worship of the church.

2. If you already have Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, the Easter Vigil rounds out what is known as the Triduum, or the Great Three Days. The cumulative power of these services as a unified series cannot be overstated. Together the three comprise a pilgrimage for the faithful from the upper room to the cross to the empty tomb.

3. There is great flexibility allowing the service to be scheduled according to the needs and desires of a particular congregation. The service may be held the evening before Easter Sunday. A common hour to begin is 7:30 p.m. or as late as it must be to ensure the service begins in the dark. Sometimes the service begins later in the evening timed to end at midnight. Or it may take place Sunday morning replacing the “sunrise service.”

4. Major passages of Scripture, somewhat longer than we usually hear on Sunday mornings, invite us to hear a broad proclamation of the Good News in its fullness. From three to twelve Old Testament scripture readings in the service lead worshippers through the major events in Salvation History leading up to the coming of Jesus Christ. The three that must be included as a minimum are the Story of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4a), the Exodus (Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21), and a reading from one of the prophets. Two additional passages are called for, one from the New Testament letters and the other a Gospel reading.

5. The service proceeds at a leisurely pace gives worshippers at this service time to meditate on the mysteries of the faith, even though it can take three hours. There is much to absorb and contemplate, and this service encourages a devout meditation.

6. Easter Vigil makes the connection between the Christian faith and its Jewish antecedents. While this is implicit in Lord’s Day services which feature readings from both testaments, this service lays out the themes carried forth into Christianity from Judaism, themes of deliverance, renewal, and new life.

7. The Great Vigil of Easter offers many opportunities for people of all ages to participate. A choir or choirs can present special music, the congregation will find not only hymns but service music to sing and psalms to chant, and old and young alike can take part in reading lessons and leading prayers.

8. The Sacrament of Baptism is celebrated at this service, as it was in ancient times. It is always a great occasion when new Christians are welcomed, and this particular service places baptism in the context of deliverance and freedom from sin and the rising to new life as found in both Old and New Testaments. With or without an actual baptism, the baptismal vows of the worshippers are renewed with the same impact.

9. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated as the climax of the service, clearly indentifying the meal with the resurrection meals the risen Christ shared with his followers. We come to the end of the service, to the end of the Great Three Days, and to the end of the Season of Lent, “breaking the fast” at the Table of the Lord.

10. Following the service at whatever hour, it is time to “break the fast” of Lent. If it is early in the evening, light refreshments with baked goods and hot beverages may be served. If held early Sunday morning, breakfast is appropriate. In any case, it is a time for the congregation to welcome the resurrection with a joyous meal celebration.

Do you have any other reasons you’d advocate celebrating the Great Vigil of Easter?
* Models of The Great Vigil of Easter are found in the Book of Common Worship (1993) (Presbyterian Church (USA)), the Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal), Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELCA), Book of Worship (UCC), and various other publications.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Bulletin Bullets

Here are a few “bullet points” about church bulletins, those pieces of paper that some welcoming soul thrusts into our hands when we walk through the sanctuary doors. The bulletins can have considerable influence on how we worship and deserve scrutiny.

=What’s on the cover? Often when I arrive for worship I see on the front page of the bulletin a picture of the church I just walked into, usually the exact same view I actually saw. That’s in the category of what a friend of mine calls “Repetitive Redundancy.” Save the picture for a brochure distributed to potential visitors. On the church bulletin it tends to look like a real estate ad.

So what do you put on the cover? Is there a nice window in the church with some Christian symbolism? Try that, with a brief blurb in the bulletin about what it means. Or capture some of the good graphics available. Better yet, put your congregational artists to work, including children. Be creative. Have fun. Celebrate the faith. The cover should always be a joyful welcome for the worshipper.

=How about announcements? They should be short and to the point, as complete as possible. Printed out, they give the worshipper an overview of what’s happening throughout the congregation.

That’s the easy part. Now, what about verbal announcements during the worship? In a word, “Don’t.” Announcements, if you must have them, work best at the very beginning as part of the gathering of the people of God. Sharing some information about the life of the community of faith is helpful at that point. Making announcements of any kind anywhere else in the service interrupts the flow and has the feel of a commercial break. If the information is in print, there’s really no need to repeat it all word for word. The verbal announcement needs only to highlight what’s already there, or make a correction. Keep it short.

=Prayer lists are often included in bulletins. Not only do folks know for whom to pray, but they have a list to take home as a reminder for their continued prayer and compassionate action.

The caveat here, of course, is to take care to preserve the privacy of those on the list. Medical details are not necessary to prompt prayer. People should probably not be put on the list without their permission.

=The major part of bulletins is given to the order of worship. The journey of faith through the service is made clear if there are headings marking off the major segments: Gathering; Service of the Word; Service of the Sacrament (Baptism and/or Lord’s Supper); and Sending. The individual pieces fall into place accordingly.

Without some such headings, the order of worship takes on the character of an agenda, a list of items to be accomplished, checked off one at a time. Worship has a movement, a flow, taking us from one place to another: from renewing our relationship with God; to hearing anew God’s Word for us; to feasting on the refreshment of God’s Word given to us; to going forth to be Christ’s disciples with vigor and zeal.

An interesting experiment is to omit the individual items from the order of worship. Put in the headings, and under each just the parts the congregation needs: unison prayers, sung responses, responsive readings, etc. It makes everyone (pastor too) think about the course the service is taking without a detailed roadmap.

What does your bulletin look like? What other bullet points could you make about your bulletin?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Heroes and Heroines

The Second Sunday of Advent found me at the Lutheran church where I often worship. The deacon announced that on this day we remember Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Later in the service, during the prayers of the people, we offered a prayer of thanks for his life and witness to the faith.

As I recall, no mention was made of Nicholas’s sainthood, or of his legendary life that became the prototype of the modern “Saint Nicholas,” a.k.a. Santa Claus. He was just noted as a faithful servant of Christ from the past.

The most significant thing was that Nicholas also got a mention in the prayers of the people. That should not be a surprise to any Presbyterian. The Book of Common Worship (1993) provides at or near the end of every model for Prayers of the People (pp. 99ff.) some praise of God “for all your servants who, having been faithful to you on earth, now live with you in heaven.”

It’s unfortunate, I think, that we don’t place a stronger emphasis at this point. The brief and vague allusion to those who have gone before us in the prayers of the people slides on by, and I suspect it doesn’t really register on the consciousness of most folks. Our spiritual ancestors are nameless and faceless, whose stories we don’t remember if ever we knew them.

So our understanding of the church’s story too often skips from Jesus and those who followed him that we hear about in the Bible to Luther and Calvin, and from the Reformers on to us. There are huge gaps there, and our worship suffers from this worse than splotchy understanding of church history.

It is not just church history—it is salvation history. The story we tell is one of God’s overwhelming grace embracing people’s lives as they march in a twenty-century-long parade. It’s a procession of changed lives, rescued souls, acting out courageous love. You and I are in that parade. It is in the community gathered for worship that we place ourselves in line to continue that march through our time and beyond.

Just as you and I have names and faces and our own unique stories, we need to find ways of reclaiming the memory of those who have gone before us in faith.

The Book of Common Worship (1993) steers us in this direction by providing two prayers with the title “Thanksgiving for Heroes and Heroines of the Faith.” (See pp. 813-814.)

The first gives thanks for all God’s “servants and witnesses from times past” starting with Abraham and Sarah down through Jesus and his followers to “all the saints and martyrs in every time and every land.” There are names we recognize, faces we can imagine, deeds we can hear about.

The second prayer with the same title has a more personal slant. Not only are we interested in the stories “in the pages of scripture, in the records of history,” but we want to remember the faithful people we hear about “in the recollections of our families, and in our own childhood memories.”

The point is, according to this prayer: “As we remember these people, inspire us to join their ranks and follow our Lord through life, to be bold as they were, and brave as well, witnessing to your righteous truth and generous love.”

Worship places us in that stream of faithful living. We not only learn from those who have gone before, but even more wondrous, we set the example for the saints who follow.

Where and how in your worship do you see the flow of “salvation history?”