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?