Saturday, March 27, 2010

Palm Sunday and/or?

I don’t know exactly when it was that somebody thought it was a good idea to shift the emphasis of Palm Sunday to include the Passion of Christ.

Once upon a time, if I remember correctly, we Presbyterians had Palm Sunday to commemorate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, on the first day of Holy Week. The Passion would come later in the week, receiving full attention on Friday.

Our Roman Catholic friends had a Passion Sunday, but it was the week before Palm Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent. It began a two-week period called “Passiontide,” but that never caught on much for Reformed Protestants. Not long after Vatican II, the Romans put both Sundays together in what they called, “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.”

Along the way, Protestants invented “Passion/Palm Sunday,” compressing both the parade, welcoming the Messiah into the Holy City, and the crucifixion, marking his exit, into a single service. From what I understand, one of the reasons this took hold in many denominations such as the Presbyterians was because it was deemed to be realistic.

Here’s the problem: Relatively speaking, nobody goes to Holy Week services any more. Maundy Thursday draws a few, Good Friday even fewer. Easter Vigil is something most people don’t even know about and therefore don’t know what it is they’re missing. So, for many folks, perhaps most of the members of most of the churches, Holy Week is a complete blank. The story of Jesus, as they experience it, takes a giant leap from the celebration of his entrance into Jerusalem to the celebration of the resurrection, from one mountaintop to another. People are able to skip over the betrayal and injustice that beset Jesus, the profound agony in the souls of all who followed him to the cross, and the devastating tragedy of the whole scene.

The remedy for this unrelenting niceness is to push the Palm Sunday envelope to include the narrative of the crucifixion. That covers the territory for those who won’t be in church again until Easter Sunday. Passion/Palm Sunday, then, also becomes a “preview of coming events” for those who will show up later in the week. All bases are covered.

I concede the realism of Passion/Palm Sunday, but it’s a sorry state of affairs when the church changes its calendar to accommodate the non-attendance of the bulk of its membership. Besides, there are some drawbacks.

One is that we don’t do justice to Palm Sunday. The happy hosannas are sung with genuine joy. But that is obscured, clouded over by the gloom that lurks ahead. The day is a time set for celebration, and the church needs to raise the roof in song to proclaim the fulfillment of divine promises.

The other drawback is that we don’t do justice to the Passion of our Lord either, at least not for those who find in Passion/Palm Sunday a reason for not needing to attend Holy Week services. The one narrative section about Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, lengthy that it is, is not sufficient, even if bolstered by some of the great passion hymns and other music. It’s all crammed into one hour, and that makes it cramped.

Neither is there holy leisure for meditation, for contemplating the wonder of it all, for letting the story sink in. It takes time to worship God. We do ourselves no spiritual favors by doing condensations à la Readers’ Digest.

What needs to happen, of course, is that everyone ought to attend the full schedule of liturgical events throughout the Christian Year, and especially during Holy Week. Yet that’s not realistic. So we unhappily make concessions.

Still, maybe there are ways to convince our church friends that they don’t want to miss Maundy Thursday, that they do want to be there for Good Friday, and that surely they can’t have anything else more important on Saturday evening than Easter Vigil.

What are some of those ways? How can we educate our congregations about Holy Days?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Creating Liturgy

In a previous post I championed the cause of moving beyond only adopting the liturgical texts of the Book of Common Worship (1993), wonderful and useful that they are, to adapting them occasionally to one’s own worship situation and setting.

Now I’m encouraging another step or two beyond that. It’s not enough just to re-work an existing text and just up-date its images or language. Creating liturgy from scratch is the goal.

In the late 1960s, I was given a chance to work on the Worshipbook. My assignment was to re-cast the prayers of the day into “contemporary language.” One of the things that meant was to change every “thee” and “thou” into “you.” It also involved relating the prayers to lectionary themes for the year, and really required in most cases a completely new prayer.

I took a week to go to Princeton Seminary and concentrate on the project, and to catch up on reading related to worship. A number of people there, when told what I was up to, took considerable umbrage at my youthful precociousness and chastised me for abandoning the King’s English for pedestrian vernacular. Even a couple of professors decried my project as mere “tinkering.” I knew the difference between “tinkering” and “re-casting,” however, and persisted in spite of sometimes strenuous objections. There was more to it than just changing “thee” to “you.”

Perhaps that’s the first lesson in learning from the liturgical models in the Book of Common Worship (1993) or any other prayer/worship book. No “tinkering.” Instead, “re-cast.” That is, you’ll have to re-write the prayer fully. Look at content and structure, and then write your own version in your own words.

Another thing to remember when writing prayers that will be spoken by the congregation is that the language has to fit relatively comfortably in their mouths. You won’t use complicated syntax or esoteric vocabulary. Straightforward expression is best.

Whatever else you do in writing your prayers for Sunday services, don’t try to be clever or cute. When preparing prayers for a meeting of the Daily Prayer task group, I was proudly pleased with one prayer in particular. It was wonderfully clever, no kidding. I couldn’t wait to read it to the group. Which I did. And when I heard it coming out of my mouth, I realized how awfully clever it was—and how really awful it was. The turn of phrase was so cute that it drew attention to itself, and the prayer itself faded into nothingness. I tore it up right then.

Write in your own voice. Be the same person in writing a prayer as you are representing the Lord in the rest of your life. When you write, write as you speak. The advantage in writing a prayer is that you can go over it again and actually write it better than you speak. Anyway, let your written prayers be as natural and straightforward as possible. Elegance and eloquence can obfuscate (big words are hard to understand).

Notice that the prayers printed in the Book of Common Worship are formatted so that there is one phrase (or so) to a line. Writing a prayer a phrase at a time helps you write in a more conversational manner, and helps avoid lengthy prose sentences that run on and on. When you see the prayer printed this way, you can almost see how it will sound. It’s a good format to follow.

When you’ve written your prayers for Sunday, stand up and speak them out loud. Praying is a physical activity as well as spiritual, mental and emotional, so experience the prayers physically. Listen as you speak and you’ll find rhythms in your words, perhaps even music in the intonations. You’ll also hear the glitches, the parts that you want to do over.

One more thing, pray the prayers yourself. You will not just lead prayers on Sunday, you will pray them. They may be prayers of the people, but first of all they are your prayers. Your praying makes your leadership of worship authentic.

What have you learned about writing prayers? Any hints to pass along? Where do you find strong and helpful models of prayers for congregations?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Don't Just Adopt--Adapt!

I had the opportunity a while back to take a seminar with the Disney Institute. The folks from Orlando shared what they learned at Disney World that we might put to work in the variety of businesses and groups represented among those attending, everything from fire departments to colleges, from hospices to manufacturing companies.

They told us how they provide top-of-the-line customer service, for example, and suggested that we could do it too. But we could not just adopt what they do at their theme parks lock, stock and barrel. No, we shouldn’t adopt—instead we should adapt, take the concept, the idea, and recreate it so it would work in our very different settings.

Not long after, as I was using the Book of Common Worship (1993), it flipped open to a section in the Preface with the heading “Form and Freedom.” One paragraph from that section reads:

"Local pastoral concerns will determine the appropriate way to use the texts and services. Some will find strength and a sense of unity in the prayers shared in common with the whole church and so will use the liturgical texts as they appear in this book. Others will find it more appropriate to adapt the prayers for use in a particular setting. Others will be prompted to follow the structure of the services as they are outlined and use the texts as models for a free and more spontaneous style of prayer. Each of these styles is appropriate within the provisions of the directories for worship, and it is the intent of the Book of Common Worship to provide the necessary resources." (Pages 6-7, emphases mine.)

I suspect that many pastors and worship leaders who have the book follow the first alternative, at least most of the time. The material is of such high quality, it hardly seems worth the effort to try to do better.

Pastors are busy people, as we all know, and fulfilling the responsibilities of preaching every week occupies not only lots of time but energy as well. A liturgical resource as complete and of high quality as the Book of Common Worship is a boon and a blessing worthy of using with enthusiasm and joy. It is readily adoptable just as is.

So I became only one of many who learned how to “cut and paste” from the book to construct the liturgy Sunday after Sunday. Ready-made prayers and responses worked so very well from the beginning that their use became habitual rather quickly.

Having been part of the process of the book’s development, however, I knew full well that this was not the only way to use it—maybe not even the best way.

It seems to me that the time has come, and perhaps is long gone, when we should move beyond primarily adopting texts from the Book of Common Worship (1993) unchanged. Rather we should at least sometimes adapt them to our own particular situation, and this for several reasons.

First of all, every liturgical circumstance is different: different settings, people, times, locations, expectations, etc. Even if all the different factors appeared to be repeated another time, they would not be exact duplicates. Liturgy requires a certain amount of fine-tuning and finesse at the least. We can hardly expect the same prayer to satisfy every disparate need time after time.

If there are exceptions to this, they would be the durable prayers that have stood the text of time and hold up well through repeated use. Yet even these require some adapting over the years—witness the Lord’s Prayer re-worked in an “ecumenical version,” and hymns with alternate wording for some lines or even new entire verses. Even Holy Scripture appears regularly in new translations.

Furthermore, pastors and worship leaders need to learn how to create and construct liturgy, and the best way—maybe the only way—is to do it. Adapting, not adopting, is the method. The Book of Common Worship (1993) is, among other things, an educational resource. The prayers and other liturgical forms are models of structure and style from which pastors and others can learn to craft their own quality versions of corporate worship.

It’s only when we do this kind of work that we begin, for example, to learn how a Eucharistic prayer is constructed, or what the Psalm Prayers contribute to the Psalter, or what all is involved in the Prayers of the People, and so forth. It’s work that pays off in more thoughtful and sensitive worship leadership, and richer participation of those in the pews.

How much of your Sunday liturgy is entirely original to you and your congregation? How do you modify prayers of confession, for illumination, of the people, week to week?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

It's a Mystery

“The view from the pew” which I currently enjoy most of the time, opens my liturgical eyes to some issues I’ve previously overlooked.

One thing I’ve begun to notice more and more is how devoid of “mystery” Protestant worship so often is. In particular, we of the Reformed Clan must have it in our genes to explain everything, and in so doing, we bleach out what cannot be explained but only experienced. On the other hand, a casual, folksy style can quickly chase away any sense of awe.

At the same time, we all know that the “mysteries” of God defy explanation and that worship itself is audacious if not preposterous. Yet we do it anyway. Mystery is at the heart of our faith and in the soul of our worship.

God resists being packaged according to our understanding. Our faith is not dependent on what we know and can explain; it depends on who we know and can experience. Therein lies the mystery of it all.

From the top, we are drawn to worship by some sort of divine magnet pulling on our souls, attracting us into a community of God’s people. We may think we come of our own will and accord, but it’s God’s call that summons us. We don’t really volunteer to worship and serve God—we are recruited. The gathering of which we are a part, the church, is a mystery too.

We are invited to confess our sinfulness in public, “before God and one another,” and if we are at all serious about that, we bare the mysteries of our souls. Such confession is accompanied by a grief for which human language is inadequate. Equally mysterious, even more so, is the forgiveness from God that floods our souls with an exquisite joy.

When words fail, as they do more often than we like to admit, music lends a helping hand. Hymns, psalms and songs, old and new, can sing what we cannot say, maybe even things we cannot bear to say. Music can engage our emotions and allow us to feel what we think we already know, that God’s grace is overwhelming, that Christ’s love makes us disciples.

The responsibility of the pastor or presider in worship is paramount. According to the Presbyterian Book of Order (G-0202a), insofar as the pastor “dispenses the manifold grace of God and the ordinances instituted by Christ, he or she is termed steward of the mysteries of God.”

Anyone who has ever stood at a pulpit to dispense the manifold grace of God knows how utterly impossible it is, but also knows the God-bestowed compulsion to try. The danger is that we preachers might slip into acting like we are the experts, like we know all the answers, when in reality we’re just trying to figure out the right questions. The truth is that we fumble for words, and never quite come up with the best ones. The mystery of preaching is that even so the Spirit speaks through the preacher’s verbiage.

Just as mysterious is the awesome calling to be the steward at the Lord’s Table. That Christ is really present in the breaking of bread and sharing the cup of wine is a mystery beyond compare. Our Lord is the host, and the pastor is his servant, the “waiter” (read “deacon”) who does the Master’s bidding and serves all who spiritually hunger and thirst.

So how do we allow the mystery of our faith to show through in our worship? What can we do, if anything, to let awe and wonderment that their places in our worship? Here are a few thoughts.

The setting of worship can undergird the sense of mystery, or can work against it. The room ought to look like it is to be used for worship, a place where ordinary people come to be engaged by God, to meet in person the risen Christ. In a word, it should look like a church, not a theater or classroom. The décor should offer iconic art, symbols that speak wordlessly of truths that defy speech.

The congregation, therefore, is not a class or an audience, but something closer to a family newly united in this place. I understand that architecture can limit options, yet it would be nice if seats could be rearranged perhaps at angles rather than in parallel rows so worshippers could see one another’s faces.

Leaders of worship should be aware of their own experience of awe, and let it find a natural expression in their tone and decorum. They will be careful, of course, to avoid preacher-y tones and speech patterns that come off forced and phony.

Significant periods of silence for everyone to personally absorb spoken and sung corporate prayers will help. In quiet reflection, the prayers take root in the depths of our souls where the mystery of God’s love is most desperately needed.

Where do you experience the mystery of God’s grace in worship? What helps and what hinders that experience?