Sunday, April 25, 2010


The overriding principle of Christian liturgy, as far as I’m concerned, is that it is the people’s work. Some of the people have particular responsibilities for that liturgy, such as clergy and musicians and lay leaders and deacons and so forth. But they are worshippers too.

Therefore, those who are responsible in some form for leading or enabling the worship of the people have to do two things at once. First, they themselves have to worship. Second, they have to prepare and present a liturgy in a thoughtful and prayerful manner that will spark worship in everyone. In other words, worship leaders have to give and receive at the same time.

Another way to think of this is to see the experience of worship for the people in the pews as being both impressive and expressive.

Take “expressive” first. Good liturgy helps the people in the pews to express their faith, to sing and shout, if that’s what’s called for, or be still and quiet to listen to the Spirit’s whispers. Good hymns, for example, are singable and both physically and emotionally engaging. Hymns are either prayers or affirmations of faith—they give voice and song to inner convictions and longings.

The whole liturgy has the potential to be engaging in this way. Written or spoken prayers provide the language for the people’s expression of deep needs and hopes. Action, including posture and gesture, allows physical expression by the people of their joy, or love, or sorrow.

So the planners and leaders of liturgy need to be careful and conscious of providing the right equipment so the people can do their work of worship. To do this, planners and leaders must think first as worshippers themselves.

I’ve discovered, for example, that one of the secrets of preaching that connects with the pew-sitters is that I preach to myself first. Knowing my own humanness is a good starting point. If I can honestly listen to the text speaking to my life, I can usually wrestle with it to produce a sermon that stands a chance of hitting someone else’s target. In this way, the sermon helps the people work through their faith, and they are actively involved in listening and processing the scriptural message.

On the other hand, planners and leaders must recognize that worship is “impressive.”

Now, before we go any further, let’s get it straight that worship planners and leaders are not there to “impress” people in the normal use of that word. Preachers preach, not perform. Choirs sing to praise God, not for applause. Prayers are not to be clever or cute, but simple and profound. The people are the performers. Period.

Worship is “impressive,” however, in the sense that the music and words and actions of the liturgy, as well as the setting with its decors, leave an imprint on the worshipper. Everything that happens in worship is filed in the brains of the people. They remember and take with them what they experience. It’s all with them to be used perhaps another day.

Hymns, for example, are a repository of theology. It’s been said that most of us born before 1960 learned our theology from the hymns we sang in church as we were growing up. That’s probably still true, although fewer children are learning the great hymns of the church. The use of “praise songs” presents a problem here, because so many are theologically shallow. The upshot is that the hymnody of the church is not being duly appropriated by some church leaders to “impress” worshippers with sound understanding of their faith.

We also have to acknowledge that some hymns do promote ghastly theology: a me-first kind of give-me-what-I-want attitude devoid of self-giving love; they are also highly individualistic and ignore the community that God has assembled. Such hymns do not leave imprints, they leave dents, and the damage is often difficult to repair.

What I’ve said about hymns, I think is equally true of the prayers written and spoken. It takes considerable effort to produce a prayer that not only enables worshippers to express themselves, but leaves a message in them, the seed of a prayer they might nurture to blossom another time.

Where do you see liturgy as “expressive” and “impressive”? What are some ways you would suggest to improve the worship where you are?

Sunday, April 18, 2010


“The Greeting of Peace,” sometimes called “the Passing the Peace,” or “the Kiss of Peace,” or simply, “the Peace,” is playing to mixed reviews in some Protestant churches. At least, so I hear. That’s probably because the rite contains a mixture of meanings.

For many Reformed and similarly inclined folks, this is a new idea, so that they don’t know quite what to do with it. In the midst of worship we should break ranks and wander the aisles to press the flesh of our co-worshippers? Before and after the service, such warmth of fellowship is completely understood. It is unusual for us, however, that in the middle of worshipping God we should stop to greet one another in any fashion whatsoever.

Too often, the Greeting of Peace is merely a greeting, a time during which we say hi to our friends and exchange quick messages like, “New dress? Love it!” or “Come over for the game!” or “Dinner tomorrow?” or “Can’t make the meeting tonight—sorry!” and so forth.

There is the problem: we really do not stop worshipping God to act out the Greeting of Peace. At least we should not stop. The Greeting itself is an act of worshipping God. It is the celebration of God’s peace given to each one of us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, I pass along the blessing of peace bestowed on me by the crucified and risen Lord in this action.

So we should never treat the greeting casually, without eye contact, with limp handshakes. If we know the person’s name, we should address her or him by it. If appropriate, a hug or a kiss seals the greeting’s exchange. If we offer the greeting first, we should have the grace to wait for the other’s response. Otherwise the Greeting of Peace will seem a trivial and superficial dialogue interrupting and pre-empting praise to the Almighty.

The Greeting is often placed after the Prayer of Confession and Pardon. In exchanging the Greeting of Peace, the Peace we have received in Jesus Christ, we take the next logical step. As we are forgiven, so we forgive. The Greeting of Peace is a sign of reconciliation, God’s reconciliation to us in Jesus Christ, ours to one another in the church and to everyone beyond. It brings any who are separate together. It offers Peace to heal the brokenness, in our souls, in our relationships.

Some scholars have suggested that the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount about achieving reconciliation before bringing your gift to the altar (Matthew 5:23-24) reflects a liturgical act already being formalized. Therefore, if the Greeting is not exchanged immediately after the Prayer of Confession, it should take place before the Lord’s Supper.

So the Greeting of Peace is not just for friends, although often we need Peace between ourselves and our friends to heal faded or broken relationships. It is also for us to extend to strangers, and is therefore an acting out of the virtue of Christian hospitality. It is Christ welcoming the stranger, the sinner, by means of our Greeting of Peace offered to them. We become Christ’s agents in these moments, doing his will, blessing others with his Peace. It is an act sure to overwhelm with humility and wonder anyone offering Christ’s peace in this way.

Yet it is precisely this exchange of Peace of Christ among people that overrides all other relationships that they might have with each other. Relationships between or among family, friends, sinners, strangers, or any others are not what bring us together in the church. In fact they really don’t matter, in spite of the fact that we often make them matter. It is the Peace of God that brings us together as the church and binds us as people of God, as followers of Jesus. That’s all that really matters—it is the glue that makes us stick together.

The Greeting of Peace, then, reforms, reassembles and unifies the gathering of diverse worshippers as God’s own people. The Peace we exchange is not ours to give, except as we have received it from Christ.

You’d think we’d know all this, since we are Bible-believing people. A Greeting (or Kiss) of Peace was apparently referenced in the letters of Paul (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; and 1 Thessalonians 5:26) and Peter (1 Peter 5:14), testifying to some such practice among the followers of Jesus early in the life of the young church.

The Greeting of Peace is not to be demeaned by letting it be a superficial salute to an old pal, or a shallow welcome to a stranger. Rather it speaks from the heart of the Gospel. As Christ reconciles each of us to God, so we are, like it or not, to be reconciled to one another.

“The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”
“And also with you.”

The question is, what can we do to shift our corporate awareness from the shallow understanding to the deep and profound meaning of the Greeting of Peace? Do you have the Greeting of Peace in your church’s service? How is it interpreted? Does the pastor ever preach about it?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Liturgical Orphans

A good friend and colleague of mine and I were commiserating, as we are sometimes wont to do, on the subject of how so many church members don’t know, or never knew, anything much about church history or the heritage that informs our worship.

He called the ailment a form of historical and liturgical amnesia afflicting the body of the church. We’ve plumb forgot what went before us. It was like we woke up one year and had to start over to figure out how we might worship God.

My image was similar. I pictured church members as thinking of themselves as liturgical orphans, living without any information about their past, where they came from, even who they are or might be. Impoverished creatures, these church members are, without the wherewithal to do their worship.

Okay, we’re overstating the case, perhaps, but the problem is a real one. Let’s face it, most people in the pews, and maybe some pastors too, for that matter, do what they do in worship with a modicum if not a minimum of background and theological information. Most worshippers have trouble expressing why we do what we do on Sunday mornings. If they ever knew, it seems that they forgot.

There is an increasing number of voices these days leaning heavily on the seminaries for their failure in training clergy to fulfill their responsibilities as “resident liturgical theologians” in parishes. In my day, I came out of seminary with minimal historical or theological understanding of Christian liturgy. I understand from those who know, that the situation has improved only slightly, if at all.

Sure enough, budding clergy are taught at length how to preach. The mysteries of biblical exegesis, writing and delivering sermons are explored and revealed so the clergy can develop through the years to be competent and maybe outstanding preachers.

What the seminaries forget, however, that preaching is not enough. In fact, if preaching is the major emphasis in the training of a minister, it misses the point that the sermon is to be proclaimed in the context of a larger liturgy. If the liturgy is not informed in its preparation, if the people don’t know what they are doing, if the rites are empty rote, then the sermon stands naked, unsupported, left to fend for itself solo.

Now it follows as night follows the day that if ministers are not adequately equipped with history and theology of Christian liturgy, they won’t have a chance of being able to prepare their congregations. The congregations in turn are deprived of heritage and tradition that gives foundation to their worship experience.

I wonder if this is a reason that so many people aren’t in the pews on Sunday. If worship doesn’t make sense, if it has no traditions behind it, perhaps it’s just boring and folks don’t bother. Would people find it more interesting and even exciting if they realized that there is not only wisdom but genius in the rites and rituals, in the words and music of worship?

Now, we can wait around to see if the seminaries will catch on and do something to correct this inadequacy. Or, ministers and elders and musicians can rise up and deal with the situation ourselves. How? Here are a few suggestions:

Get hold of a copy of Introduction to Christian Worship by James White (Abingdon Press, 1990). Get the elders on your worship committee and your musicians together with the pastor once a week to discuss it chapter by chapter. (If your church can afford it, buy everyone a book--or better yet, have everyone buy their own.) When you've finished that book, start another on the same subject.

Ask your musicians to teach hymnody to the congregation. Maybe they could tell the background or story of one hymn before the service each week and call attention to the theological content. Or have a congregational hymn-sing (with a dinner) to sing some of the hymnal’s “golden oldies.” There’s history there, plus memorable theology.

You might use time at each session meeting for education about the session’s responsibility regarding worship. Some may be surprised that they have responsibility—doesn’t the minister just take care of all that?

From time to time expound briefly in the service about specific rites, their history, their meaning—or at least put notes in the bulletin.

Most of all, clergy and musicians should take professional pride to educate themselves, to learn about their craft as leaders of worship, as stewards of the mysteries of faith.

What other ways can we educate congregations about worship?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter/Paschal Vigil

Easter Vigils are hard to come by in my neck of the woods. So it came to pass some years ago that my wife and I ventured forth to Boston, to The Trinity Church on Copley Square. This is a church we had visited many times and appreciated for its strong liturgy, and where we understood they kept the Paschal Vigil. There we immersed ourselves in all three days known as the Triduum and it’s become an annual pilgrimage ever since. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Day services make for a rich and refreshing weekend.

I’m not going to attempt any real play-by-play account of the Vigil last evening—you really had to be there. But I did come away with some insights and fresh approaches that I think are worth passing along.

When we entered the church, we were handed a bulletin and a candle—a full ten-inch candle. From the large Easter Candle, ignited from the new fire in the gallery, our individual ones were lighted until the room was aglow. Being lighted near the beginning of the service, our candles would have to last, the way this service was designed, almost a full hour. For most of us in the pews they did. I was impressed by staff’s thoughtfulness to provide candles of sufficient length.

Following the Exsultet, a prayer calling the hosts of heaven, the creatures of the earth, and the whole church to rejoice in Christ’s victory, the Vigil continued with stories of God’s salvation in the past: A Story of Creation, A Story of Noah and the Flood, A Story of the Crossing of the Red Sea, and a Story of the River of Life.

Each of these stories cited biblical texts on which they were based, but each story was told in a different way. The Creation was a paraphrase re-telling of Genesis 1:1-2:4a. Noah and the Flood was presented in two stories, one based on cited Genesis passages, and the other a tale translated from the Arabic. The story based on Exodus 14 and 15 was told in the song, “Go Down, Moses,” a soloist proclaiming the verses, the congregation joining in the refrain. The Story of the River of Life was a close reading of Ezekiel 47: 1-12.

It was a different approach, one which I wasn’t sure I’d appreciate when I realized we were not rehearsing the scriptural texts. As it turned out, they were all very engaging. The biblical versions were familiar enough that they provided the context for the stories we heard.

I particularly had reservations about “Go Down, Moses,” but the power of the soloist’s proclamation in singing the verses, and the congregation’s eager response in the refrain, made it exciting and memorable.

I always pay attention to rubrics, those little printed instructions about the liturgy that customarily are printed in red (which is what “rubric” means). Here are a few of particular significance in this service:

“Children: Children are invited to worship with their families and are encouraged to arrange themselves so that they can easily see the actions of liturgy.” I really like how it is addressed to children personally, with the knowledge that the parents are the ones who will read it and see to it that children can see and take part in the worship.

“The drumming at the Proclamation of Easter comes from the traditions of the Ewe (Eh-vay) people of Ghana, West Africa. It is performed by a group of Trinity parishioners and friends, ages 8 and up, who have participated since February 2 in weekly drumming sessions led by Jeremy Cohen, a professional music educator and leader of musical study tours in Ghana.” It was an explosive, thunderous and vibrant announcement of the Resurrection.

“The Easter acclamation is said three times, each time louder, accompanied by ceremonial drum music of Ghana. The people ring their bells, louder and louder. For the rest of the liturgy, the People ring their bells whenever ‘Alleluia’ is sung or said.” Members of the congregation came armed with bells of all shapes and sizes and sounds—a wondrous cacophony of tones accompanying the single lyric, Alleluia!

And finally, as we approached Holy Communion, we read: “All People, regardless of faith tradition, if any, are welcome to receive Communion at Trinity Church.” This invitation was reinforced by the personal encouragement of the Rector who stressed that the table was not the church’s, but the Lord’s Table.

There is, of course, much more to tell, so stay tuned. For now you can be sure it was worth the trip.

If you attended Easter Vigil somewhere, or held Vigil in your own church, how did you review the history of God’s saving deeds with our ancestors? Was there a baptism? What was especially meaningful?