Friday, December 24, 2010

Songs for All Seasons

It feels like everything is out of sync when we’re hearing Christmas carols in the mall starting on Halloween. I know it’s a commercial ploy to create a generous mood in shoppers, and is exploiting the faith. So I’m much happier when the Season of Christmas begins and the carols and songs sound out when they’re timely.

On the other hand, there are three songs that we usually identify with the Season of Christmas that are versatile enough to be sung at any time. You’ll find them in Luke’s Gospel: canticles by Mary (Magnificat), Zechariah (Benedictus) and Simeon (Nunc Dimittis). Although all three songs are featured in the story of the birth of Jesus, their usefulness in liturgy is not limited to the Christmas or Advent Seasons.

The Book of Common Worship—Daily Prayer places these three biblical songs in premier position every day: Mary’s Song in Evening Prayer; Zechariah’s Song in Morning Prayer; and Simeon’s Song in Prayer at the Close of Day (Night Prayer).

In other words, they’re appropriate year round, any season, any day. The expectation is, for Daily Prayer, that they’ll be used frequently.

It’s too easy to write the three canticles off as belonging to Christmas, and shelve them for the rest of the church year. When they become part of the daily discipline of prayer, however, their realism and relevance become clear.

Mary’s Song, in the Book of Common Worship-Daily Prayer, has been treated with some liturgical license. Rather than speaking about God in the third person, as she does in the biblical text, the prayer book version has her speaking to God in the second person. It is much more intimate. The song becomes a prayer. In the context of worship, daily or Sunday, Mary’s Song becomes our prayer.

What a flaming radical Mary is. She signs on with God, no hesitation. Not much more than a child herself, she agrees to be God-bearer, to bring Christ into the world. And she is fully aware that what God does through her will turn the world upside down—God casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.

Mary’s Song, then, is the prayer of the church. We, too, are God-bearers, called to bring Christ into our world. We, too, are God’s agents in setting things right side up once again.

Zachariah’s Song appears in Morning Prayer. For the most part, it too is a prayer we can pray. Except for one brief section wherein Zachariah speaks to his Son, John, who is destined to serve God. John will grow up to be the “advance man” for Jesus—he will “go before the Lord to prepare the way.”

Zachariah’s Song then is our prayer and our marching orders as we launch our lives each day. We are to prepare the way of the Lord, “to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.”

Simeon’s Song comes with our prayers at night. It’s the prayer of an old man who at last knows God’s promise of salvation is kept—now he can rest in peace.

“Rest in peace” sounds funereal. And it is. Prayer at the Close of Day is a rehearsal for Prayer at the Close of Life. Some of the texts and other prayers of the service are familiar ones that we have used and heard in funerals.

This is not unusual for end of day prayers. Children over generations have gone to bed at night saying, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”, which also links the end of day with the end of life.

There is another ancient version of that thought used as a refrain to Simeon’s Song, worth memorizing—also a good prayer for all occasions:
Guide us waking, O Lord,
and guard us sleeping;
that awake we may watch with Christ,
and asleep rest in his peace.

You can really sing Mary’s, Zachariah’s and Simeon’s songs. Musical versions are readily available in the Presbyterian Hymnal (601-605).

Have you used any of these canticles at times other than Advent or Christmas? Do you follow Daily Prayer in your church? For yourself?

Sunday, December 19, 2010


The portion of Christian liturgy labeled “Gathering” has numerous ritual possibilities, as I rolled out in my last post. The part called “Sending” is considerably skimpier.

As often as not, the Sending is treated abruptly as the Ending. The Word is read and proclaimed, the Eucharist is celebrated and shared, we sing a hymn, a blessing is pronounced. The End. We’d be better off, however, thinking of the Sending in terms of “To Be Continued….”

The Book of Common Worship (1993) does provide some Sending suggestions, the first being that everyone sing a hymn. But not just any hymn. It should be a hymn that picks us up, riles our souls, and inspires us to carry our service of worship into the next week by worshipping God with our service.

There are any number of hymns that can lift a congregation up and send them out into the world as Christ’s disciples. “Lift High the Cross” (371 in The Presbyterian Hymnal) is one of my favorites. This is a great recessional hymn as choir and clergy lead the parade out into the world.

The other suggestion in the BCW is the Charge to the congregation, composed from a collection of Scripture texts (See 1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Tim. 2:1; Eph. 6:10;
1 Thess. 5:13-22; and 1 Peter 2:17.):
Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have found this charge, over the years, to have powerful impact. It’s repetition has cumulative effect, and staying power. I remember well, for example, the man who grasped my hand after the service one Sunday, quietly saying that he needed to speak with me for a moment, in private. When we stepped into my study, this is the story he told. “A while ago,” he said, “one of my colleagues at work undercut me, really knifed me in the back on a project. Well, last week I had a chance to get even, and I was poised to let him have it….” He paused, fought back a tear, and continued, “…when I heard in my head, those words I’ve heard so many times on Sunday: ‘return no one evil for evil.’ And I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.” He went on to express his astonishment and appreciation for the power of those words.

The Sending is the other half of the Gathering. As we are gathered to be God’s people at worship, so we are scattered to be God’s people in the world. Both gathered and scattered, however, God’s people are praising God, serving God by serving God’s children. One is no more or less worship than the other.

Roman Catholics dip their hands in holy water and cross themselves as they enter the church, as a reminder that by baptism they first came into the church. They do the same leaving, as a reminder that they are to go into the world to live out their baptism. Whether or not we like that ritual, remembering our baptism coming and going is worth serious consideration.

Why not put a strong recollection of our baptisms as part of the sending. Here’s a suggestion. Add something like this unison prayer, based on a model offered in the Service of Reaffirmation of Baptism—Growth in Faith (BCW p. 483), just before the Charge and Blessing:

Faithful God,
in baptism you claimed us;
and by your Spirit you are working in our lives,
empowering us to live a life worthy of our calling.
We thank you for leading each of us
to this time and place
of reaffirming the covenant you made with us in our baptisms.
Establish us in your truth,
and guide us by your Spirit,
that, together with all your people,
we may grow in faith, hope, and love,
and be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit
be honor and glory, now and forever.

This would strengthen the sense of “Sending”, making us worshippers more aware that our being the people of God is not finished, but is really “to be continued….”

Do you hear a Charge to the congregation as you are sent out to follow Christ each Sunday? Does your church’s liturgy have any ritual to strengthen the Sending?

Sunday, December 12, 2010


One of the more important and most often neglected parts of a service of Christian worship is what is called the “Gathering.” The assembling of the faithful on the Lord’s Day doesn’t just happen willy-nilly—there is considerable thoughtful ritual associated with it.

Shifting gears from every-day life to the focused worship of Almighty God is not always easy; maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s never easy. So there’s a process laid out that moves us from here to there, nudging us into the spiritual place where the “work of the people” happens, celebrating God’s love in Jesus Christ.

I always thought that the “Gathering” began at the door of the church, but I’ve come to realize that it begins earlier. For some the process begins when feet hit the floor on Sunday morning. Right away thoughts and the meditations of hearts begin to tilt toward church and all to be experienced there: friends to meet, Scripture to hear, hymns to sing, forgiveness to find, enthusiasm to absorb, peace to receive—all of these start their holy work on worshippers early in the day.

We’ve already heard God’s call in our own lives, and it’s in response to God’s call that we make the effort, even when it’s at odds with our personal preference at the moment. We who have been the church in the world are then on the way to becoming the church at worship. Already as we arrive in the parking lot and make our way into the building, we are starting to be “gathered.”

The first thing that happens is that we see our friends, maybe meet someone new or a visitor, and casual greetings are exchanged all around. This is a time of hospitality, practicing that essential Christian virtue of welcoming others as human beings, if nothing else.

Sometimes we are inclined to discount these greetings because they tend to be superficial, and are often related to something other than our brother-sister Christian family relationships. Hospitality, however, is always to be taken seriously, for the welcoming of one person by another is always a sign of grace.

I was the guest preacher in a church a few weeks ago where the custom is to do the Greeting of Peace right at the beginning of the service. It was a small enough congregation that I got to shake hands and share a holy greeting with everyone in the place. That was nice for me as the guest preacher because I worshipped with and preached to people whom I now had met.

Whatever else happens when we greet one another at the Gathering, however, we should be clear that our congregation is not a country club or some other assembly of like-minded people assembled because of common tastes and interests, but a church of diverse people called by God to love each other and the world as God does. The liturgical pieces flow from the awareness that God has called us (and that’s the only reason we’re there).

The prelude, obviously, is part of our preparation. A friend of mine said the prelude is the accompaniment to the “entrance dance of the people.” At least part of the prelude might be lively enough to fill that bill, and music also can lead into a time of quiet preparatory meditation.

I’ve always found that a time of silence serves me well also. Quiet helps me to collect my own thoughts and prayers that up till now had been fairly scattered.

The Call to Worship in words of Scripture is another reminder of God’s call, an authoritative summons for us to pray and praise before the Almighty, to give thanks for the gift of Jesus Christ, and to renew our commitment to new life. Sometimes the call to worship is also sung in the form of an “introit,” a musical introduction to the service.

A Hymn of Praise lets us all join in with full voice to praise God with words and music that provide not only delight and uplifting of spirit, but theological substance. The great hymns of church tradition shouldn’t be left on a shelf somewhere in favor of pop songs or so-called contemporary music that is theologically thin. Praise of God deserves our very best.

The Prayer of the Day may be used to introduce a theme emphasized throughout the service, and set our hearts and minds to be receptive. The Lord’s Prayer, offered here, also sets forth the pattern for prayer content as instructed by Jesus to his disciples.

More singing of God’s praise in special music by choir or soloists brightens the Gathering, and also can do much in setting the mood for what comes next. The Prayer of Confession (in unison, please) and the Declaration of Forgiveness are essential in clearing away the guilt that so often prevents us from hearing the fullness of God’s Word.

All of this is offered as preparation for the sections of Word and Eucharist. The arrangement may vary, and not every item is necessarily included. Yet it is clear that from Sunday morning rising to attentive hearing of the Word of God, there’s much to be done.

What do you find most helpful in gathering yourself, with others, in the church? What does not help you prepare for hearing God’s Word personally?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pastoral Prayer

I recently was the guest preacher for a congregation without a pastor for two Sundays. Their order of service, following the sermon, called for a “Pastoral Prayer.”

The first Sunday I was there, I filled that slot with a series of bidding prayers à la the “Prayers of the People” in the Book of Common Worship (1993), complete with brief instruction about the introductory phrase and congregational response following each one.

Because the responses of the people to the Prayers of the People were hesitant for many and non-existant for quite a few of the folks, I decided the next week to go for a more “traditional” pastoral prayer. Looking out on many gray heads convinced me that they and I would be more comfortable, and perhaps more prayerful, with what might be for them a more familiar form.

The pastoral prayer has always been a focus of misunderstanding in our churches, mainly because “pastoral” has not been clearly defined.

There have been, and probably still are, plenty of people who think the pastoral prayer is the sole property of the pastor. I remember painfully more than one occasion when some congregants would talk to me about “that thing you do” in reference to the pastoral prayer. “Pastoral” in their minds meant “pastor’s.” Which gave them latitude to tune out, and accept no responsibility for the commitments implicit and explicit in the prayer.

Now I know well that a wandering mind during a lengthy liturgical prayer can be a prime opportunity for the Spirit to lead a soul. A good pastoral prayer will touch individual lives in ways not necessarily calculated in advance by the pastor. At the same time, the pastor knows (or should know) the people, and therefore is able to frame and shape the prayer in such a way as to be hospitable to the people in the pew.

The true definition of “pastoral” has to do with the spiritual care of a congregation. The one who has this overall pastoral responsibility brings together in the pastoral prayer, not her own concerns, but those prayers in the hearts of the people seeking to be spoken aloud by the one who cares for them.

Behind the pastoral prayer, the prayers of the people, is time spent by the pastor visualizing and praying for every person for whom he has responsibility for spiritual care. This should be a part of the daily prayer schedule, using the models of morning and evening prayers of thanksgiving and intercession.

I realized that this was exactly my problem as a guest preacher. I wasn’t the pastor. I knew two people in the congregation, one of whom I hadn’t seen for years. So, to some extent, I was flying blind in putting the pastoral prayer together.

I was not entirely without pastoral understanding, however. There was a list in the bulletin of people for whom concern had been expressed. I had known previous pastors of the church and had some sense of their pastoral concerns. And, of course, I brought to the prayer my own understanding of the human condition and the common needs in all of our souls.

I was mindful also of the presence in the BCW of rubrics that supply an outline that one like myself might use to create a worthy pastoral prayer (see the rubrics below). This outline is very useful as a map for an ad lib prayer. Extemporaneous prayers (my own and those of others I’ve heard) tend to be highly selective and forget to touch on significant and persistent concerns. Furthermore, such prayers often wander afield and lack coherence. Following a guide is helpful discipline and education.

We’ve changed the terminology: from “Pastoral Prayer” to “Prayers of the People,” which is a good change. Yet we should not forget that the prayer by whatever name requires considerable pastoral sensitivity in reading the unspoken prayers of the people and giving them voice.

How “pastoral” are the prayers of the people in your congregation? Do you rebuild the models offered in the BCW, or use them “as is”? Do you make use of the rubrics for ad lib prayers?

From the Book of Common Worship (1993), page 99:

The congregation prays for worldwide and local concerns, offering intercessions for:
the church universal, its ministry and those who minister,
including ecumenical councils, churches in other places,
this congregation;
the nations and those in authority;
peace and justice in the world;
the earth and a right use of its resources;
the community and those who govern;
the poor and the oppressed;
the sick, the bereaved, the lonely, all who suffer in body,
mind, or spirit;
those with special needs.
Those who have died are remembered with thanksgiving.
The prayers are to be offered in a manner that engages the people in prayer. They may be prepared by the one leading the prayers, and offered in a free style. Or one of the forms that follow may be used. In using any of these forms, appropriate petitions and concerns may be selected, and others added. Or similar prayers may be prepared using these forms as models.