Friday, May 28, 2010

Uplifting Prayer

Some things (and people) deserve honor and respect if for no other reason that they’ve been around for a long time. Durability counts.

In liturgical matters this is especially true. Anything that has survived repeated reformation, translation and up-dating warrants special attention. Why has this liturgical piece lasted so well?

We see durable liturgy, for example, in some of the “golden oldie” hymns. In spite of the fact that when new hymnals are produced every decade or two, and many hymns are weeded out, and other new ones are planted in their place, these older ones continue to blossom and flourish. A prime example is “Amazing Grace.”

I’d like to nominate another part of Christian worship, however, for the award of Long Lasting Liturgy: the Sursum Corda, (Latin for “upwards the hearts,” usually translated “Lift up your hearts”).

The Sursum Corda is included in the brief three-fold exchange between the presiding minister and congregation that precedes the Eucharistic prayer, the Great Thanksgiving. In the Book of Common Worship (1993), it reads:
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

The Sursum Corda dates back at least to the third century where it is found in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome and has been in constant use ever since. It even survived the Protestant Reformation when all sorts of liturgy considered unbiblical was being relegated to the trash heap. When the dust of the Reformation settled, the Sursum Corda would be kept in one form or another by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer. Furthermore, it has been used by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches through the centuries.

The Sursum Corda helps us see the spiritual dimension of the Lord’s Supper. While we think of the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament, it’s not so much that he comes down to us, but that we “lift our hearts” to the Christ enthroned in heaven.

The Sursum Corda, therefore, summons us to a realm above and beyond squabbling about how, when and where Christ is present in the Supper. Lifted by the Holy Spirit, we are open to encountering the risen and ascended Christ in a spiritual rather than material, or worldly, way. The elements and the actions are “signs” or pointers toward that encounter, rather than its culmination.

The last two lines, the invitation by the presider to give thanks, and the congregational reply of assent have a particular relevance. The congregational response is the people’s permission to the presider to offer a prayer on their behalf, in which they gladly will join. It is as though their “amen” were given in advance, that they were agreeing with the prayer about to be verbalized and vocalized by the presiding minister.

Furthermore, these statements and responses speak of a commitment on part of the people to pay attention, for this relatively lengthy prayer at the Lord’s Table is their prayer, not something belonging to the presider.

Understanding this, it’s not surprising that the Sursum Corda has been around for so long. It’s a sure thing, too, that it will be lifting the sights of our prayers for generations to come as God’s people approach the Lord’s Table.

Do you use the Sursum Corda in your church?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I'm Confessing . . . Again

When the word “confession” comes up in a conversation about Christian worship, it usually is taken to mean confession of sin. Although it happens that some are wary of using that term, perhaps because it smacks of laying on a guilt trip. One good alternative I’ve seen is “Prayer for Reconciliation.” The common, and more straightforward term, however, is “Confession of Sin.”

There is also another kind of confession that takes place on Sunday morning—or at least it should. It goes by the name of “Confession of Faith.”

The Confession of Sin and the Confession of Faith appear at different places in the order of worship. Confession of Sin usually comes shortly before the reading of Scripture and proclamation of the Word in sermon. The Confession of Faith most often appears closely following the Scripture and sermon. The two confessions are like bookends surrounding and supporting the Liturgy of the Word, which leads one to deduce that there is some inherent relationship between them.

The Confession of Sin is the major part of the preparation for hearing the Word. Without confession, we would be inclined to approach the proclamation of the Word with our ears plugged up. The Reformers understood that public confession deflated spiritual cockiness and put worshippers in touch with their spiritual need. Facing up to the truth of sin within us, we desire healing for what is broken in our lives, reconciliation with God and those around us, and the new life that is offered in the Word who is Jesus Christ.

Following the proclamation of the Word in Scripture and sermon, the people stand and speak the Confession of Faith. This confession, however, travels under a variety of aliases. The Book of Common Worship (1993) refers to it as “Affirmation of Faith.” The rubrics, however, include a number of alternate terms:
Creed – specifically referring to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds;
Affirmation – drawn from scripture;
Confession – as in Book of Confessions;
Declaration – excerpted from “A Declaration of Faith”;
Profession – by one being baptized;
Reaffirmation – when the congregation reaffirms the baptismal covenant.
Essentially they all mean the same thing applied in different settings. I choose to stay with the term Confession of Faith as a way of keeping it linked to Confession of Sin.

The Confession of Faith is really the flip side of the Confession of Sin. In confessing sin, we acknowledge not just our sins, those things we’ve done wrong, but our Sin, that is the brokenness of our relationship with God. God’s forgiveness is not completed in the Declaration of Forgiveness after the Prayer of Confession. It is only when we hear the Word and then believe our God that we are reconciled. Then we accept the healing of the breach by stating our belief and trust in God by standing to affirm, confess, declare, profess, or reaffirm our faith, or say a creed (credo=I believe).

The Confession of Faith and the Confession of Sin make up a matched set. They belong together in a service. Leave one out, and the omission leaves a huge theological gap in the people’s worship.

I’ve been in churches where there is no Confession of Sin, by any name. I always wonder why. Is it because the people (or pastors) recognize no need for reconciliation with God because that’s a given? I heard it directly from the mouth of a fundamentalist Christian expressed this way, “When you’re saved, you are forgiven for all your sins in advance.” No kidding. That’s not only lacking humility, it’s downright scary.

Leaving out the Confession of Faith may not be as scary, but it’s just as troublesome. When I started in ministry, the church I served had no Confession of Faith under any name or in any form. The resistance I encountered when introducing such an outrageous innovation could be described as hostile indifference. It took a process of close to two years to have anything akin to a Confession of Faith. (In the interests of full disclosure, they weren’t keen on the Confession of Sin either.) Why did they resist? Maybe they didn’t like having to state belief in someone else’s words, or so some told me. I think it went deeper than that.

The lack of a Confession of Faith results in a lack of commitment. Public declaration of what we believe, and Who we believe, is a standard to which we hold ourselves accountable. Just as confessing sin is a way in worship to acknowledge and reject sinfulness, confessing faith is a liturgical way of making a personal commitment to God.

Confessing faith during worship is also a way that we align ourselves with the church throughout history. The words may not be ones we would chose, but when we use historical affirmations like the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds we place ourselves in the tradition of the people of God. Similarly using portions of the faith statements from the Book of Confessions or other historical documents link us with believers in other times and places. In the end, a Confession of Faith is never a personal statement, but a proclamation of the church in which you and I join.

Do you use both a Confession of Sin and Confession of Faith in your congregation’s worship? What do you call them? If you omit one or both, what is your rationale?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Colors of Worship

In the last few decades, the Protestant communions have gotten used to the pattern of the Christian Year: It starts with Advent as a four-Sunday prelude to a twelve-day Christmas, capped off with a single-day celebration of Epiphany. There follows a period of indefinite length of no particular seasonal designation. Then Lent appears as a forty-day prelude to Easter which runs for fifty days until the single Day of Pentecost. More Sundays not belonging to any season follow until the next Advent.

It’s a tidy pattern built around two major seasons (Christmas and Easter), each preceded by a time of preparation (Advent and Lent), and each concluded by a single day celebration (Epiphany and Pentecost). The other Sundays fall into two segments which are called “ordinary time.”*

Now all of these seasons and days, and some other days besides, have been assigned particular colors. Purple is the penitential color for Advent and Lent, and further signifies royalty referring to the rule of Christ. White points to the purity of Christ and is used for Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. Red is reserved for Pentecost but may also appear on Good Friday representing the blood of Christ, as does black for mourning, or no color at all with the worship space stripped of all decorations. Blue is associated with the Virgin Mary and is sometimes used at Christmas. Gold, another sign of royalty, sometimes appears at Christmas, Epiphany and Easter. Ordinary time is colored green, the pervasive color in the natural world, thereby signifying growth.

At the front of the church I regularly attend is a set of colored glass panels. They are easily removed and can be exchanged with panes of different colors representing the seasons and special days of the Christian Year. When this happens along with change of the cloths on pulpit and table to correspond with the calendar colors, the effect is that the “look” of the worship space is significantly transformed.

I’ve begun to notice that the change of colors with the Christian Year seasons may be more powerful than just swapping out simple symbols. Symbols, as we know, can have considerable impact and influence in worship, yet they are obvious and direct. When the “look” of the room is changed significantly, the impact is more indirect. The colors, in and of themselves, can effect the mood of the worshippers.

We are told by interior decorators, artists, psychologists and others that various colors influence attitudes. For example: Purple, depending on how the red and blue are balanced, can cause uneasiness. Red evokes strong emotions and generates excitement. White reflects light and creates a sense of openness and spaciousness. Green is a calming refreshing color. And so forth.

When a worship space is transformed by the change in color to correspond with the season or special day in the Christian Year, the transformation may well educe subconscious emotional responses from people in the pews. So it would appear.

Being absolutely no expert in color or its use in this way, I’m wondering if others have a sense of the power of color in worship. Do the seasons and special days of the Church year bring substantial changes to the d├ęcor of your worship space? Are you aware of any studies in the impact of liturgical colors on the mood or attitude of worshippers?
*Some folks object to the use of “ordinary time,” because it seems to somehow denigrate those Sundays, all of which are special. So they attach them to the previous special day, and refer to them as “the Sundays after Epiphany” or “the Season of Pentecost.” This not only deflates the power of the special days, it blurs the emphases of individual Sundays in ordinary time.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Table Etiquette

Not long ago I was filling in at a nearby Presbyterian church, and in addition to preaching I was to preside at the Lord’s Supper. That’s not always the case, of course, since most Presbyterian churches observe the Sacrament occasionally rather than as part-and-parcel of Sunday worship. So I was delighted to look forward to a complete Lord’s Day worship service.

As I discussed the logistics with the lay leader, I discovered that the sequence of serving was different from what I was used to. I was a guest, however, so I followed their plan which was according to the rubrics in the Book of Common Worship (1993): The minister and those assisting receive Communion, and then serve the bread and the cup to the people.

This was consistent with the directions in the Book of Common Worship (1946): Then the Minister, who is himself to communicate, is to give the Bread to the Elders to be distributed. For the first couple of decades of my ministry, this was the pattern I followed, clergy eating and drinking first, then serving elders, who in turn served the people.

Yet I began to have problems with this way of serving Communion. Coming right after the visual presentation of “Holy things for holy people” and “The gifts of God for the people of God,” it struck me as strange for ministers to eat and drink first. If it is for the people, why start with the clergy? This sequence, ranking the people last, leaves itself open to interpretation of clericalism and elitism.

At some point, without fanfare, I moved to what felt more natural to me: the reverse of the sequence suggested in the BCW-suggested sequence: People should be served first, then the ones doing the serving, and lastly, the clergy. It just seemed “right” to me, theologically and otherwise, and still does.*

Minister(s) served by an assistant at the last is an appropriate visual statement regarding the role of the presider as a servant of the servant Lord. It makes for good theology and good liturgy to stress this servant role, lest someone think the presider somehow personally embodies the presence of the risen Lord.

This sequence (people-assistants-minister) seems more consistent with the actions of Jesus himself as recorded in Scripture and preserved in the “four-fold action”: Jesus 1) took bread; 2) gave thanks; 3) broke it; and 4) distributed it, saying particular words. Jesus handled the cup in similar fashion, 1) taking it; 2) giving thanks; and 3) gaving it to his disciples. There is no hint that he ate or drank before those he served.

Finally, there is a connection between the Lord’s Supper and all the meals we have in that every meal becomes Eucharistic based on the model of the Lord’s Supper. Our kitchen table is linked to the Lord’s Table—in sharing food anywhere we give thanks to God for grace abundant in Jesus Christ. (We need to learn how to do that better in every location where we “break bread.”) It only seems logical, then, that table etiquette in one place should be consistent with that in the other--the minister-assistants-people sequence at the Lord’s Table would seem rude and boorish if practiced at any other table. I’m not suggesting that this is the only reason to reverse that order so that the “host” eats last. Nevertheless, the minister-assistants-people sequence represents a disconnect from common polite practice, and therefore serves confusion along with the Holy Meal.

How is Communion served in your church? Are the people served in the pews or do they come forward? Does that make any difference in the sequence of serving?


*After I retired, I took myself to worship most often with a neighbor Lutheran congregation who celebrates Communion every week—something I could not find in a nearby Presbyterian church. The time came that I was asked to fill in for the vacationing pastor, preaching and presiding at the table. There, people were served first, deacons and other assistants next, and clergy last. This they did in spite of the rubrics in the Lutheran Book of Worship which were much the same as ours. The new Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), however, allows either sequence.