Saturday, December 31, 2011

Footnote on Christmas Day 2011

Last Sunday was December 25th, which as was noted in the last post, was a very special day. It was, of course, Christmas Day, which makes it special enough. But what really made it a rarity was that the same day was in two seasons.

December 25th, Christmas Day is the last day in the secular season of Christmas that starts off right after Halloween in early November. It is also the first day of the Christian Season of Christmas that runs right up to Epiphany on January 6.

On the way to church Sunday morning I pondered the possibilities.

It would be, after all, the Lord’s Day, so would there be a “regular” service with Scripture, sermon and Communion?

Or might the day offer an extension of the Christmas Eve service the night before, with Christmas carols and hymns and other special music?

Or would it be something else altogether?

It’s not a surprise that it was option number three—something else altogether.

It was actually a nice Christmas morning event. There were hymns and carols as well as other “songs of the season” such as “Jingle Bells”. The story of the birth of Jesus was rehearsed in outline, though no Scripture was read. Because the pastor had lost his voice, there was no sermon as such, but a conversation between him and the congregation.

The “service”, if you can call it that, was very much like a family gathering, adults and kids of all ages enjoying being together on this Day so long awaited. Children and young people were allowed to come in their jammies. It was a festive occasion, filled with laughter and good feeling.

The theological content of the service was solid. We were reminded that it is the Gift of Christ in our lives that makes all the difference, and we should seek and celebrate that Gift above all.

You’re probably waiting for the other shoe to drop, but before it thuds on the floor, I’d emphasize that there was nothing wrong with this Christmas Morning worship in and of itself. It was celebrative, respectful, joyous, and faithful.

Here’s the other shoe: What was wrong was not what was in the service, but what was missing.

The pastor made it clear to everyone that Christmas Day was the end of the season—and he said as much. The ubiquitous Christmas carols and other songs will fade from the radio, and the shopping malls will go back to playing “elevator music”. Now we can get back to normalcy.

The church service I attended Christmas Day was very much the product of our modern American culture, even though it had a strong emphasis on the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. It was the end of the secular season of Christmas. But it did not begin the Christian Season of Christmas.
So the next eleven days, for all intents and purposes, were consigned to liturgical limbo—they were days in search of a place in the Church Year.

Now we might expect that the next Sunday, which is in the Season of Christmas, will be devoted to exploring more fully how we observe and celebrate the coming of God to us in human form by means of a young Jewish woman. We might hope for such, but that’s probably not to be this year.

The Second Sunday in Christmas this year is January 1st. My guess is it will be a New Year’s emphasis. Or, because it’s the Sunday before Epiphany (January 6), that may set the worship theme for the day. In most people’s minds, Christmas is over, and all that’s left to do is take returns to the department store.

When we neglect the Christmas Season in this way, we minimize the impact of the Incarnation. When we worship God it is not that we come to God, but that we know that God has come to us. It is a Gift unearned, undeserved, and for many people un-thought-of. God has bridged the abyss between God and humankind by becoming a human, to share this life with us, and to lead us in a new life. It is a mind-boggling mystery that requires more wonderment and awe from us than the secular season of Christmas allows.

One humble suggestion to improve the situation is that every Christmas Day deserves its own worship service, whether on Sunday or not. This would be complete with Scripture, sermon, communion and glorious music of Christmas to give a blast of a start to the season, and the other Sunday (or Sundays) would continue the theme.

What happened at your church on Christmas Day? Lord’s Day worship in standard form? Something different from anything before?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Two Christmases

Like it or not, you may as well get used to the reality that there are two Christmases.

One is the public Christmas, celebrated more or less universally, except for the die-hard Scrooges among us.

This is a season-long celebration, beginning immediately after Halloween and running through December 25, known as Christmas Day. Then Christmas comes to an abrupt halt.

This season has its own widely diverse music, hymns and carols and songs ranging from “Joy to the World” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, with its anthem being “The Christmas Song” as sung by Mel Torme or Nat King Cole.

It even has its own sentences and responses which run something like this:
“Have a Happy Holiday.”
To which the reply is:
“And you too.”
Or, on some occasions it is “Merry Christmas” with the reply “And to you too.”

While it celebrates the values of generosity and family love, this season is founded firmly on financial matters such as what’s good for the economy and where to buy gifts at the best bargain.

This Christmas Season is cynically known as a “Hallmark Holiday” and is part and parcel with the secular culture in which we live.

The other Christmas is that which is celebrated by Christians of all kinds around the world.

This one is also a season, but it begins right where the other one ends, on Christmas Day, December 25 and runs to Epiphany on January 6. Compared to its lengthier secular counterpart, this Christmas Season is a fast twelve days—which is ironically sung about in a favorite fun song during the Halloween-to-Christmas period. One day is not sufficient time to do justice to celebrating Christmas, so the better part of two weeks is set apart for the rejoicing.

What is more, it takes up to four weeks even to think about celebrating the Christian Christmas. Preparations, spiritual preparations must be made, starting in late November or early December, at the same time the Hallmark Christmas Holiday is going strong. But there is a radical difference.

The Christians observe four Sundays called Advent, a purple-colored time, to reflect on one’s needs and repent of one’s sins, and to long for, yearn for the gift of new life from God. It is not a time for Christmas carols. The mood is much different, more solemn, more contemplative in contrast to the frantic giddiness going on outside the church. God’s people wait with quiet hope and expectation for God’s promises to be kept.

So when the Season of Christmas finally arrives, for Christians there is almost a sense of relief, of release and freedom. The promise of new life is kept in the birth of Jesus, and we are all granted a new lease on our lives. The joy of Christmas wells up from the depths of our souls and finds voice in our songs of praise to God.

The gift we receive is not a gift someone bought for us in a store at great or small expense. It is a priceless gift freely given by God to everyone, quite apart from their deserving it, in spite of their not deserving it.

So here’s the problem: two Christmases on two different schedules with two very different values.

What has happened is that the Hallmark Holiday has eclipsed the Christian Christmas. It’s not a wild and crazy assumption to suggest that for most people who call themselves Christian, more energy and time is invested in the secular, cultural Christmas, than in Advent preparations for and celebration of the Christian Christmas Season.

So what do we do about it?

One option is that Christians boycott the secular celebrations and pay more attention to Advent-Christmas. Well, that’s nonsense, because it won’t work.

What might work is for us to recognize first of all that we live in two worlds. There is a secular world out there that is not Christian, and though we live in it, we are not of it. We’re just pilgrims passing through. So we learn to distinguish one set of values from another, getting-and-giving from God’s grace, expensive from priceless, temporary from lasting.

Which is to say that we will not escape observing the one, but we should not neglect celebrating the other.

May the next Twelve Days be filled with the joyous gift of new life in Jesus Christ for you and those you love.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sacred Space

The question she posed to me went something like this: “The theater group can’t have their rehearsal in the sanctuary, can they? I mean it’s a ‘sacred space’, reserved for worship only, right?”

I suppose it depends on who’s answering the question what “sacred space” means. Surely there are some who consecrate their church buildings thereby setting them aside from any use other than the church’s worship. There are just as surely others, however, who feel that the space designated for and dedicated to worship by a congregation can also be used for other purposes.

The prayer for the dedication of a church building in the Presbyterian Book of Occasional Services asks the Almighty:
“May this space be used as
a gathering place for people of goodwill.
When we worship, let us worship gladly;
when we study, let us learn your truth.
May every meeting held here
meet with your approval,
so that this building may stand
as a sign of your Spirit at work in the world,
and as a witness to our Lord and Savior,
Jesus Christ.”

This does not appear to restrict the use of worship space for worship exclusively. On the contrary, it suggests that other things might take place there, and that not all of them need to be churchly activities. Of course the other uses of the building that Christians use for worship and congregational life should be consistent with Christian values. There are many other potential tenants of a church building who are “people of goodwill” that would “meet with [God’s] approval.”

Many New England churches were built on the town square as meeting houses and were home to a variety of activities, including public debates and political meetings. Serving the community was part of the building’s purpose.

In our time we seem to have forgotten this about the buildings we have. With dwindling congregations and aging buildings, the cost of keeping a structure simply for worship and congregational use is becoming, in many places, prohibitive. Once again, therefore, we’re finding it’s better stewardship to let our spaces be used by others to the benefit of the people around us, than it is to let church buildings sit empty.

It’s not a great stretch to imagine that the building which houses your congregation could be an instrument of mission by making room for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, child-care cooperatives, food pantries, non-profit service groups, Boy and Girl Scouts, amateur choral and theatrical groups, etc.

The first Protestants used architecture to distinguish themselves. Simplicity was the rule for their buildings: a place to meet, not unlike other meeting places. For them, the church was clearly not a building, but the people. Neither did they imagine for a moment that God could be confined to a particular setting or building. So, a building is only a building.

We easily get invested in our worship space. John Calvin and others cautioned about the theological pitfall of preserving a building as the domicile of the Almighty. To keep others out in order to preserve what is only a building, and keep it for God alone, is nothing short of blasphemy. Jealousy of that sort about a physical structure approaches idolatry.

One result of Christian worship is that we are sent into the world to follow the Risen Christ in service. It is also possible to invite the world into our churches as a way of offering Christian hospitality and help.

So the answer to the question posed at the top of the page would be something like, “If there’s a need to which we can respond, let’s do it. In fact, we should be seeking out those whose needs we can help meet.”

How welcoming is your church to outside groups? Do community groups ever make use of your worship space?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pre-Praying

I’m always amused by the announcements to folks waiting to get on an airplane about “pre-boarding”. Those who need special assistance are invited to “pre-board”, whereupon they get up and board the plane. There’s not a lot of difference between “pre-boarding” and “boarding” an aircraft, except that some passengers get on earlier than others.

It strikes me that a similar situation occurs when you consider “Preparation for Worship” and the main event of worship itself. Preparation for worship is much the same as what happens during any service of worship, except that some worshippers get to it earlier than others.

There is a section of the Book of Common Worship entitled “Preparation for Worship”, and it may be one of the best kept secrets of the book, at least for pew-sitters. Because the whole book is not always available in the pew racks in front of them, worshipers are deprived of more than three dozen prayers and meditations designed as lead-ins to the service of worship—unless someone has the foresight to print one in the bulletin.

Worshipping God in an assembly or congregation of Christians requires some preparation. One does not start cold—there needs to be some warm-up. We start in with our own individual prayers that get us on track for the corporate service.

This is the first reason for some preparatory prayers: that we realize we are moving from our individual lives to a life we share with a group of people. Worship is not a solo activity—it is always done by God’s people in the plural, people God has gathered together.

It’s not just realizing that each worshiper belongs to a congregation, but the awareness that we all belong to a global church, a church through the centuries. The Body of Christ to which we belong is much more than the members of a Presbyterian church on the corner.

Making this transition from our individual world to divine worship does not mean leaving our world behind, but bringing it with us. When we do, we discover a unity in the church, the unity of our common humanity as well as the unity of God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. Our needs are strikingly similar to those of the people sharing the pew with us.

Preparation also includes remembering to be thankful in our worship. Worship is essentially thanksgiving—the name given to the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, literally means thanksgiving. We are there to bless God for blessing us.

The time before worship is a time to meditate, to ponder the mystery of God’s love that brings us life, to reflect upon the week just past, to contemplate challenges that lay ahead, to consider new commitments.

During this time we also simply wake up. Most of us come to church needing to get in focus for what is to come. Worship is work, remember, so we have to pay attention to what we’re doing. The prayers before worship help us be alert to the presence of God and our opportunities to praise our God for love and redemption.

One of the largest problems, however, is that this same time is often used by most people to greet their friends and neighbors and chat about things other than what is about to take place: the worship of Almighty God. It’s an inevitable conflict between having a happy and welcoming congregation and providing a modicum of silence for those who want to prepare themselves for worship.

When there is this kind of conflict, of course, the preparation comes first. Those who would prepare themselves for worship should be accommodated and allowed relative quiet for their meditations.

Yet many congregations go the other way. A noisy welcome period at the start is the sign of a friendly church, they say. After all, we’ll quiet down when the service really starts anyway, so preparing for worship is not necessary. (We don’t need to pre-board anyone—we’ll all get on the plane at the same time, and get there as a group at the same time too.) A tad inconsiderate, I must say.

People need this opportunity to get spiritually ready, and leaders and planners of worship need to make it possible—for those who don’t think they need it as well as those who know they do.

Furthermore, musicians and ministers and lay leaders should take a gander at that same section of the Book of Common Worship where suggested prayers of preparation are available they’ll find useful. If they are not geared up to lead worship, it’s going to be a real problem.

Does your pastor and staff have prayer before the service? Does the choir? How about lay readers? Does your session meet in advance of worship for a time of prayer? Does your bulletin include suggested prayers for the people to use before the service begins?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

God's People at Work = Liturgy

The man came up to me on his way out of church after the service and said, “I didn’t like that thing you made us do this morning!”

I had no idea what he was talking about. “What thing was that?” I asked.

“You know,” he grumped, “that series of prayers when we had to think of all kinds of people and make commitments to help them. That was a lot of work.”

The man had experienced the true meaning of “liturgy”—the work of the people.

My wife says that “liturgy” is a scary word, by which she means that the use of the word tends to turn people off. It sounds technical and scholarly and foreboding to the ordinary people in the congregation on a Sunday morning. Maybe, she says, we need to learn what it really means and use it correctly.

For many clergy and musicians and worship planners, liturgy equals all the words and notes that are assembled to create a worship service. There are prayers and songs and instrumental music and sermons and more prayers, silent and spoken, and creeds and Scripture readings, and so forth—and all these pieces are put together to shape what the people do when they worship God.

Sometimes, however, ministers and musicians focus only on those visible parts of worship: the words, music and rubrics (instructions printed in red in the worship books). But the real “work of the people” takes place elsewhere. The grumpy man who spoke to me had it right—liturgy happens in the hearts and minds of the people in the pews.

The liturgy is not simply in the words spoken by leaders and said or sung aloud by the people, but maybe especially in the thoughts and feelings expressed silently by each person. The work the people do is more than what happens outside—it is also what they experience internally.

Consider this:

When they enter the room, worshippers are conscious of this being a special place. The architecture, arrangement of the furniture, d├ęcor, sounds of people chatting and music playing, the smells of flowers and candles, symbols and colors, and so forth—all contribute to establishing a climate in which the people will do their work.

The Prayer of Confession, for example, is usually a broad, generic prayer that will be filled with personal meaning by each individual. Even while speaking aloud, the people are thinking what those words mean for them, and perhaps feeling emotions of regret or release.

As hymns and songs of praise are lifted up by the congregation, strong memories are evoked of previous experiences and growth in faith. The lyrics and tunes being sung give expression to deeply felt convictions otherwise silently held.

The words of Scripture bring forth an encounter with the Word Jesus Christ. Listening to these words is not to be a passive experience. Worshippers bring their own thoughts and current emotions to engage with the biblical text in a conversational way. They listen, and if they hear, they respond in their minds and hearts.

This conversation continues in the proclamation of the Word in the sermon. There are those who consider preaching a one-way communication, a prophetic utterance that does not require, doesn’t even want a response. On rare occasions this may be true. Yet the proclamation by pastor to people is clearly conversational. Obviously, the people’s response is silent and internal. They agree with this point, challenge that one, and find a full range of emotions stirred up along the way.

It’s an interesting experience, to say the least, for a preacher to have a “back-talk” session with pew-sitters after the service—certainly worth doing every once in a while. This gives the preacher some reality check of what his partners in the sermon-conversation are thinking and feeling while he or she is holding forth from the pulpit.

The Eucharist presents other opportunities for the people to do their work. This too is not a passive exercise of receiving. Taking the bit of bread and sip of wine the worshippers in various ways are making a commitment, and in the silence of their hearts are expressing dedication to discipleship. They will be thinking about what this commitment means specifically in their lives, in the life of the church.

The Sending reminds people that their worship and service to God does not end when they leave the building, but continues through life. They will depart with their own thoughts about how they will accomplish that and the feelings of excitement and anxiety that may be with them. Their liturgical work, interior and exterior, will continue.

Everything that takes place in the Sunday service is matched by what is going on inside each worshipper, thoughts and feelings silently registered internally. This is the true liturgy, the true work of the people.

It is vitally important, then, for those who plan and lead worship to be aware of what the people are doing, what the visible and audible elements of the service are prompting and provoking in them.

How do you worship “with head and heart”? Do you ever give the preacher meaningful feedback on the sermon?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's New?

The Christian Year began with a bit of an uproar in the churches of our Roman Catholic neighbors. A new translation of the Mass from Latin appeared simultaneously for all English-speaking congregations this morning, the First Sunday of Advent. It’s no surprise that the change is controversial.

The idea, according to those who are behind this change, is to provide a more accurate translation of the Latin words. For example, when the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” or “Peace be with you,” the new response from the people is to be “And with your spirit,” which is a literal translation of “et cum spiritu tuo.” Previously the response was simply, “And also with you.”

The concern, however, was not simply to be accurate, but to get away from familiar speech to a more formal language appropriate to the worship of Almighty God.

The issue of what liturgical language should look and sound like is an old one, to be sure. In living memory, how people spoke and sang in worship (Protestant as well as Roman Catholic) changed because of the Second Vatican Council’s allowing the Mass to be celebrated in languages other than Latin. The English version was produced in 1973 and has been around ever since, up until this morning when the new version appeared.

For Presbyterians, the major shift appeared about the same time with the Worshipbook Services in 1970 and the Worshipbook Services and Hymns in 1972. The controversy then was over “contemporary” language, in particular addressing God with the familiar “You” rather than the more formal “Thee” and “Thou.” *

To many the “new” Mass will seem to be a retreat into the Pre-Vatican II era, or at least an unraveling of the Council’s achievements. Many Protestants will undoubtedly view it as such. To others it will be an accomplishment long awaited. To some, most, perhaps, it won’t matter one way or the other.

However you score the new Mass compared with the old version, the question is clear: How do we find the appropriate language for worship—language both worthy of worshipping the Divine, and capable of meaning to those who use it?

On one hand, it’s the difference between approaching God in awe as the fearsome and holy “Other,” and the “palsy-walsy” treatment of God as our Best Friend and Buddy. Somewhere there is a line which leaves us within reach of both the Almighty Creator and Judge and the intimate Father introduced to us by Jesus Christ.

Therefore, liturgical language is going to need to be theologically sensitive.

On the other hand, much depends on how useful the users of the language find it. Language that is elegant to the point of being stilted may seem pious to some, but it will slip out of reach of many others. A quick read of the new Roman Catholic Mass text leaves me with the impression that it is attempting to be more dignified, but in some places comes off as stuffy and priestly pompous. Certainly this is not a pitfall for Roman Catholics only—Protestants know how to inflate pious-ity in their worship as well.

Therefore, liturgical language must also be familiar enough to the worshippers to fit meaningfully in their mouths and thoughts.

Our Roman Catholic friends will struggle for a time getting used to the new Mass, just as Christians everywhere will have to wrestle with change. Whenever there is reform and renewal, some degree of adjustment is needed. That’s the way growth takes place. Better for us to deal with change than it is for us to go stale with the same-old-same-old worship.

What has changed in the worship at your church in the past ten years? Is the language used in worship your language? Is it too fancy and hifalutin? Or is it too common and everyday?
______
*It is ironic that “thee” and “thou” were originally the familiar forms one used to address family and close friends.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Icon Makers

I’ll admit it: I like icons. No, I’m not talking about the little pictures on my computer screen. It’s the stylistic paintings of the Orthodox Christian tradition that grab my attention--like those at New Skete Monastery in Cambridge, NY.

I find Orthodox icons often to be exquisite works of art. Even the simplest are captivating in their bold artistic expression. There is a beauty in design and artistry in the choice and blend of color. Now this may be a matter of personal taste, but to many, these representations of holy people of the past are art of the highest order. Icons are often referred to as “the Bible in art” or “theology in color.”

Icons, however, are much more than beautiful illustration. In the Orthodox tradition they are often described as “windows into heaven” as they depict the heroes and heroines of Christian history, first and foremost of whom is Jesus Christ. Iconography is, in fact, founded on the theological understanding of the Incarnation: God has come among us as a real human being, one to be seen, heard and touched.

Icons are not worshipped, of course, but they do prompt us to remember those of the past who have been God’s representatives “in the flesh”. They are our spiritual ancestors, and in a sense, icons become a family album of remembrance.

For many of us in the Reformed Tradition, this is foreign territory. Yet, at the same time, in a very real sense, we become icon makers—especially when it comes to planning and preparing for Lord’s Day worship. What we do in creating the worship experience will provide real-life human expressions of God’s love that came to us once in the real person of Jesus Christ, and is with us yet.

For example:

Putting the sermon together, at least for clergy, is one of the first (and last) things we worry about. Early on in my ministry I remember someone saying that my responsibility in preaching is “to introduce Jesus and then get out of the way.” Now the sermon may be a work of art in itself, eloquent, even elegant—but that’s not the reason sermons are preached. The preacher may be gifted and attractive, but it’s not the preacher’s show. The preacher is to fashion an “icon” to show Jesus Christ to be real and present. The sermon is crafted with words, but it is the Word that is spoken and heard.

In the same way, choral music for worship can be “a window into heaven”. The choir prepares pieces, not for a concert for the people in the pews, but as praise to God with the people in the pews. Music from different periods of history reminds us of our spiritual heritage. Choral and instrumental music will open the windows of our hearts so we can get more than just a glimpse of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.

The prayers of worship are also “icons” to be fashioned with humble and artistic care. Ultimately all prayers are the “prayers of the people” and should be written with those specific people in mind. That is why we use “contemporary language” in liturgy—it’s their work, and should be in language they recognize. More than that, however, prayers in worship point like arrows to the One to whom they are spoken, the Christ in whose name they are offered, the Spirit who empowers each prayer to issue in acts of faith.

The space in which we worship is itself an “icon”. How we prepared that room is important, therefore, so as to create an appropriate atmosphere, appealing to the senses. What we see, hear, touch, smell on entering the service is critical if a “window into heaven” is to be opened. What we taste at the table is a further sensible consideration. Banners, flowers, furniture arrangement, colors of pulpit, lectern and table cloths, music being played, and so forth, set the mood and lead us into the Divine presence.

Sermons, anthems, prayers and the room we’re in, are all “icons”. Their value is not in themselves. It’s not the “great sermon” or the “beautiful song the choir sings” or the “poetic prayer” or even the “lovely church sanctuary”—what really counts is how well they lead us to the Risen Christ.

So how do we accomplish this? It isn’t easy. We can, however, learn from our Orthodox sister and brother icon makers. For them, painting an icon is in and of itself a spiritual discipline. A lot of prayer and meditation goes into the design and craft of such a spiritual work. A lot.

Similarly, prayer is the foundation of preaching. The key to church music is that it is rehearsed in prayer. Even the prayers for Sunday morning rise out of the meditation and prayers of the pastor and worship leaders. Those who clean the space and set the flowers and decorations for worship perform their tasks prayerfully.

In a way, most everything we do to arrange, set up, and prepare for worship is making icons, creating works of art that will open people’s hearts and minds to the presence of God.

Do you find prayer a necessary component in preparation for worship in your church?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pulpit Humor

Not long ago I visited a church where the pastor was away and a guest was filling in. The itinerant preacher ascended to the pulpit and began with a pronouncement something like this: “I understand that Pastor Jones usually begins his sermons with a joke, so I’ll start with one of mine.” Whereupon he launched into what had the aura of something lifted from the “Church Humor” page of the Reader’s Digest.

Well, his gag barely scored a point on the chuckle-o-meter. And “gag” describes my reaction to it. Such attempts at what is supposed to be humor contribute nothing to proclamation of the Word, and often become a huge distraction—as it was in this situation. We were jolted out of the mode of worship and into something that the speaker thought was entertaining.

Won’t we ever come to understand that entertainment and worship are oil and water—they simply do not mix. When one tries to mix them, entertainment always wins out, floating on the surface.

It’s distressing when preachers try to be stand-up comedians. It so often comes off as buffoonery, and the message suffers because of the messenger.*

I suppose that preachers try this in an effort to meet the folks in the pews on their own terms. It is condescension, stooping down to their level in hopes of connecting with them. It is nothing less than an insult to their intelligence and an affront to their spiritual needs. Congregations do not assemble in churches on Sunday mornings to hear jokes—they come to meet Jesus Christ in the Word proclaimed and to be nourished in the Sacrament Meal.

This kind of joking approach to pulpit humor comes from a misunderstanding of humor and its role in proclaiming the Gospel. Humor is not one-liners or shaggy-dog stories. Humor is wit that shows perception and understanding, and it can provoke laughter.

There is a problem, however, if one goes in the opposite direction and rules humor out of sermons. It’s a mistake to consider “serious” and “solemn” to be synonyms—they are not. Preaching the Gospel is serious business, always a matter of life and death to those who listen and hear. It should not be trivialized by jocularity. Yet it should not be smothered by sober solemnity that is dour and dull.

I’m sure there are preachers who see the humor in life and share it in sermons. I’m confident that many preachers are able to be human and identify with their listeners, as they reveal the real presence of Christ not only in their words, but in their lives. Certainly there are preachers who can find laughter to share in the oxymorons and paradoxes and ambiguities of life and faith.

The point is, when preaching it’s best for most of us not to try being funny just to get a laugh. It’s risking being laughed at rather than being laughed with. Being ourselves is the best approach. If we’ve been paying attention to what happens in life and how God surprises us, there will be plenty of smiles, and even chuckles and joyous laughter.

Do you know preachers who show humor and wit in their sermons without telling jokes?
______

* If the urge ever rises up within you to tell a joke in the midst of or as a preface to your sermon, please sit down and think, until the impulse fades away. If you still conclude that the joke is demanding to be told, then follow these rules:
1. Make sure the joke you have to tell is a really good one and will fill the room with laughter.
2. Make sure it is used to make or reinforce a point in the sermon, so critically that the sermon cannot fly without it.
3. Make sure you can tell it well enough to achieve points 1 and 2. Rehearse it in front of your spouse.
My sense is that it you follow these rules, you won’t be telling jokes from the pulpit.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We're Confessing

Early in my ministry, a prayer of confession was introduced into the order of service, whereupon I was confronted by one of the members during the coffee hour. “I don’t like that confession prayer,“ he said. “I’m not so bad I need to do that every week.”

Well, more than one point got past him.

The importance of confession of sin in worship for any and all of us is that it reminds us of our distance from who God. The challenges of our faith are considerable, and we fall short, often as not. Confession allows us to recognize the forgiving, healing grace of God, and sends us on our way rejoicing. That’s only one point he missed.

The other fumble on his part was that he didn’t see that this prayer of confession was a part of common worship. We’re confessing together. It’s not that we are confessing our individual and personal sinfulness at the same time. Rather we are as an assembly, a group, a body, a people, corporately confessing. We don’t say “I” but “we”.

Of course the Prayer of Confession can prompt in any of us rue and regret for our personal failures. Inherent in the corporate confession is each individual’s personal prayer.

Early in the post-Vatican II dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics, I attended a semi-clandestine gathering of both brands of clergy. We began our meeting with a time of prayer led by a priest. The prayer was a Roman Catholic form in which the priest confessed to the people, receiving forgiveness pronounced by the people, and then the process was reversed.

Given the historic situation at the time, this was a powerful experience of mutual forgiveness, both personally and corporately. Protestants and Roman Catholics had plenty to confess before God and one another—prejudice, misrepresentation, hatred, and so forth.

Alot of these sins were (and still are) committed by corporate bodies. When I began in ministry, the session of the church I served required a Roman Catholic becoming a member to be re-baptized. In those days, this was left to the session to decide. If you disagreed with that personally, it didn’t matter—someone else made the decision for you. It was a corporate decision, and if it were considered sinful, it was a corporate sin. (In that instance, the session soon removed that requirement and recognized all baptisms.)

A more current example in the ecumenical realm is the inability of both the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant bodies to share communion at the Lord’s Table. This is the sin of disunion. Even though a person personally does not agree with such policies, and denounces them as sinful, he or she may participate in the sin as a member of a group that fences their Table to keep others out.

There are many other current situations in which we all participate in sin that needs confessing. When policies and practices of our government violate our Christian consciences in waging war or raping the landscape or oppressing the poor, we all participate in the sinfulness, and are cut off from God—because we belong to the national body.

Prayers always lead to action, or they are not authentic prayers. This is radically true of the Prayer of Confession. Whatever it is that we confess, whether it is our individual failing, or something in which we share because of our membership in some group—whatever we confess becomes a commitment to do something about it.

Prayers of confession are often fonts from which flow the actions of protest. Recognizing what is wrong, what is an affront to God and a conflict of conscience for ourselves, leads us to champion repentant change. This was clearly the case in the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, and is today evident in how many Christian respond to the war in Afghanistan and the financial policies of Wall street. One has to wonder how many of those occupying Wall Street nevertheless want good dividends on their personal investments. It can get complicated.

It is always difficult for us to extract our personal actions from those of the groups with which we are identified. On Sunday mornings, before God and in front of one another, the Prayer of confession helps us sort things out. Then we take responsibility not only for our own actions, but to challenge and change the sinful status quo championed by the groups to which we belong.

Do you pray your confession “before God and one another” on Sundays?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Club or Community of Faith?

A good friend and I were conferring over his cup of coffee and my mug of tea, pondering the current condition of the Church of Jesus Christ.

To make a long conversation short, the consensus was that, at least in terms of the Church evident in churches and congregations of which we have personal knowledge, there is a real problem: Christians seem to gather in clusters that look much more like clubs than churches.

This is to say that Christians these days tend to assemble around common interests and tastes. They look for a church where most everyone looks like they do. Some would prefer everyone to be registered in the same political party.

There are even those who select their church on the basis of whether their company higher-ups belong. They look for standing and status.

When it comes to church programs, they want the best care for their kids, a good social group for their own age range, and someone to visit their elderly friends and relatives.

Worship, for these folks, should be, above all, entertaining. When the music is super, especially the children’s music, they will applaud. The prayers shall hold up before the Almighty the needs of everyone in the room. And the sermon at all times must be short and sweetened with good humor. Worship is to be designed to make them feel good so they could go home happy and contented.

Of course, who is pastor is critical. She or he must meet all criteria of every person, offend no one ever, especially not in a sermon, and be ready day or night to respond to any need. In short, as a friend of mine once said, “The pastor is really supposed to be a spiritual concierge.”

Okay, that’s an overstatement. Admittedly this does not apply to every congregation, even if it does come frighteningly close in some. Sure, there are in every local church at least a few who know better and are looking for a very different situation.

My friend and I remembered thankfully those people we’ve known who filled the bill. For them, the church was not a like-minded club, but a diverse community of faith. They did not seek recognition for their piety or purity, but were offering themselves with humility. They wanted education, faith-formation for themselves as well as their children—not just babysitting or socializing—and they’d visit anybody who was lonely.

These are the people who’d come to worship to receive the support of the community so they could be good Christians when they left. They’d seek forgiveness, renewal and refreshment for their souls. They’d be inspired and stirred in their hearts by the prayers music elicits for them, and they’d want to be challenged by the word proclaimed, and fed at the Lord’s Table.

In fact, worship has a great deal to do with whether someone sees their congregation as a club or a community of faith.

Some examples:

I was chatting with members of a congregation that had branded itself as “nondenominational, evangelical Christian church,” and the conversation turned to worship. When I asked about their prayer of confession, I was told that they did not have one—and did not need it. They were secure in their salvation. Of course we all need confession as the antidote to taking God’s grace for granted.

I visited a service in a congregation where the “prayers of the people” consisted almost entirely of petitions on behalf of people who were members or friends of members—almost no prayers about the ailments of the world and society around us. Prayers are down-payments on actions, commitments to do something to alleviate the situation we pray for. We might reasonably assume we’d help friends and relatives who need it, but how about the poor and homeless and outcast and oppressed?

In some places the Lord’s Supper is so often done with such efficiency that it seems everyone is in a rush to get out of the building. Perfunctory is the word that should be applied. Yet the Lord’s Table is set in the midst of the world, and sharing the meal Christ set for us commits us to sharing what we have with those who have nothing to share. It is, or could be, a powerful experience.

Music, far from being simple entertainment, has the capability to touch us at our depths. Music accompanies our prayers, lifting them heavenward. Melody and song carry liturgy along the journey of worship. In so many unexplainable ways, music makes faith sing in our souls, sending us forth with enthusiasm and joy to meet the challenges of following Christ.

We come together to serve God in worship on Sundays, and go forth to worship God by our service to others the rest of the time. The Christian congregation is not a club—it is a community on a mission with Christ.

Do you have a prayer of confession in your Sunday service? What evidence do you see of “clubbishness” in your worship? What do you see that points to serving God in the world?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Essentials

Every once in a while, it helps to take a look at Christian worship from a slightly different angle. When we’re busy planning a particular service, every act of worship is important, and they all tend to rank about the same. So it is worth looking at what we do in worship to lift up those things that we would classify as “essential”.

This is not an effort to “minimalize” worship, to see what is most important as a way of finding out how little we can get away with and still call it worship. “Essential” means “what we cannot do without”. Other less than essential acts and words may be desirable as well.

The Reformers agreed that the true church was to be defined by two things: Proclamation of the Word and Celebration of the Sacrament (Eucharist). This definition was itself based on centuries of historical experience and testimony.

Certainly Proclamation of the Word is indispensible. Yet we’re not always sure what that includes.

For example, I preached recently in a church where they have two Scripture readings, one Old and the other New Testament. Not bad, so far. But what happened to the Epistle, the witness of the Early Church? Missing. If the Word is to be proclaimed in its fullness, the texts need to reflect over a period of time the fullness of the biblical message. The pattern used in the New Common Lectionary helps cover the territory.

The other part of the Proclamation of the Word is the sermon. Preaching, however, needs to find its firm foundation on Scripture. I have heard sermons preached (even some in so-called Bible-centered churches) where the only Scripture used was a snippet which served as a springboard from which to launch the homiletical address.

The sermon rarely, if ever, stands alone apart from the Scripture—especially in this day when biblical homework by the pew-sitters is not done with diligence. To preach without scriptural context made clear is to invite problems, one of which is that the preacher is not held accountable to the Word revealed in the full biblical witness. The message is not always comforting, and it is crucial to have the biblical origin of challenges clearly identified.

Another problem is that such abbreviation of Scripture lessons welcomes the “personality cult” of the preacher whose manner and style eclipses the message. Mind you, I like compliments as much as the next preacher, yet when I get them, I often feel like I should respond with, “But did you hear what I was saying?”

The Eucharist – also known as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Breaking Bread—is another “essential”. This is the most problematic, because it is largely ignored by segments of the Christian community, notably the Presbyterians, who ought to know better.

Infrequent and arbitrary communion is an ecumenical liability. Those who place the Eucharist in the “essential” category by virtue of their celebration every Lord’s Day, look down on those who demean the sacrament by a cavalier attitude toward it. It’s bad enough that we neglect it more than half the time in most Protestant churches, but even worse that we celebrate it willy-nilly on a certain Sunday each month, as though that fulfills some obligation.

Presbyterians need to brush up on their Calvin, and so do some theological education of decision-makers, theology professors, and pastors—and lay people as well—to ensure a more faithful observance of the mandates given by Jesus himself.

When the sacrament of Communion is missing, the worship experience is truncated and incomplete. In the Proclamation of the Word the message of the risen Christ present with us is spoken; in the Lord’s Supper, the same message is acted out. If either is given short shrift, an essential has been compromised and basic Christian worship jeopardized.

What other “essentials” might you add to the list of critically important aspects of Christian worship? Does your Sunday worship include the full set of Scripture readings? Is the sermon based on one or more of them? How often does your church celebrate Communion? Why?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Crossing...Again

Why don’t Protestants make the sign of the cross?

This is a question that comes around more often these days. Maybe more Protestants are showing curious interest in the action, and wonder, “Why not?”

The simple, but not always satisfying, answer is that making the sign of the cross as a physical gesture was one of the casualties of the Protestant Reformation. Superstition was rampant, and the Reformers saw the incessant signing that went on as a kind of magical action done to coerce divine action. If that’s all there is to it, that would be enough.

But there’s more—it is a relevant question for our time. For example, the baseball player stepping up to the plate signing himself with the cross—is he calling on the Almighty to put lightening in his bat? Or could he be making a gesture of faith, thanking God for the ability with which he is graced?

What about the prize fighter, standing in his corner of the ring ready to do physical combat—is he soliciting divine power in his punch? What if both boxers sign themselves—on which side is the Lord? Or, is it possible that one or both might perform the sign as a prayer for a clean bout?

Probably for most of us such signings are chalked off as superstitious, and ultimately silly. God does not have a batting average, nor is there divine intervention to empower or pull boxers’ punches in any way.

So what about making the sign of the cross in worship—why don’t Protestants?

Well, some do: Episcopalians, some Lutherans, and even some Methodists and Presbyterians.
But for the most part, Protestants do not, and for several reasons.
They agree with Calvin and his ilk—it smacks of superstition, and we’re too rational (not necessarily too faithful) to go for it.
They don’t know how to do it, because there is no one to teach them how in their church.
They’ve tried it, and it feels awkward.
If the Catholics do it, then Protestants shouldn’t because it’s catholic. (As in so many other ways, we let those with whom we disagree about some things to influence our opinions on everything uncritically.)

The last reason, of course, is the primary one. So much for the Ecumenical Movement and understanding among Christians.

The implied question in all this is, “Is it appropriate for Protestants to sign themselves with the cross?” The answer can only be, “If they find it appropriate for themselves.” Many Christians, other than Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Orthodox, find signing themselves to be an affirmation of baptism and a recollection of Christ’s redemptive death in a most personal way. As a liturgical gesture, this can be an authentic expression of praise and commitment.

Do you know of Protestants who cross themselves? How about Protestant clergy who make the sign of the cross over their congregations? Or at baptisms? Or clergy who cross themselves during worship? Are there any Protestant congregations you know where it is acceptable for people to cross themselves?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The "Third Sacrament"

Fifty years of experience as a preacher of the Gospel have taught me a few things, as one would hope.

When I started out, I was very diligent in study, careful in exegesis, and thorough in crafting each sermon. I was not above letting the hearers of the sermon know of the diligence, care and craft that went into the sermon’s creation.

I soon realized, however, that there was a time for Bible study and in place of the sermon at worship was not the best. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be Bible study related to the sermon. On the contrary, biblical study and education are the firm foundation under every pulpit preachment. Not only should the pastor put in effort to dig out the richness of the text, but the congregation should do their “homework”, either literally, or in regular and on-going classes.

For the pastor to deliver a Bible study in lieu of a sermon falls short of what preaching needs to be in this day and age. Such an effort externalizes theology and objectifies what Christians are called to be and do to the point of abstraction and irrelevance. Faith becomes a matter of the intellect, and the sermon an exercise in logic—which is all right as far as it goes. But it needs to go further.

Essays pretending to be sermons are not much better. Bristling with quotes and references to people and events beyond the reach of some, many, perhaps most of the people in the room, such discourses, whether interesting or boring, miss the mark. Too much is “out there”, something talked about but not necessarily experienced.

When the preacher makes it personal, it doesn’t help much. The preacher’s experience is rarely typical of the average pew-sitter. Making that connection is a shot-in-the-dark. Too many sermons I’ve heard and read indulge in individual reflections with not nearly the significance to the listeners that they have to the speaker. They also often slip off into mere sentimental sweetness.

Communication of the Gospel from person to person must be more than in the head—it must also be spoken from and to the heart. The idea of a sermon is not simply, maybe not ever, to convince someone to believe, but to lead them to faith. This happens when the sermon becomes an experience of believing.

Over the years I have come to recognize the sermon as being decidedly “sacramental”. Just as we recognize Christ in our midst when we gather at the font and at the table, so we should come face-to-face with him in the preached word. Word and Sacrament have come, in a sense, to be two different terms for the same thing—experiences of the Living Lord.

It’s one thing, however, to let the words of the liturgy guide us and open our eyes to see Christ here and now, but it’s quite another to say that my words as preacher will do the guiding and eye-opening. That puts a considerable burden on the mere mortals who climb the steps to the pulpit and look out to the hopeful faces awaiting an introduction to the risen Christ.

I’ve come to believe that if I rise up so brazenly to preach without a knot in my stomach and knocking of my knees, then I do not appreciate the utter awe of the responsibility. But the knot and the knocking seem to persist, so I keep working past it.

Here’s where my experience of preaching leads me to call it “sacramental”. The Spirit is there in the act of preaching, just as the Spirit is in the baptizing, and again in the breaking, pouring and sharing. The end result is the same--the Spirit introduces us to Christ.

So I get up to speak, all nervous and jittery, and a calmness comes as the Spirit joins in. In my own weakness somehow I nevertheless am strong. In my jumble of words somehow the Word comes through—and I know full well, it isn’t me, but beyond me.

I’m full aware that this is a dangerous affirmation to make, because it can skid right into arrogance. Yet it is most humbling to be aware that one is the instrument of grace, the broken vessel by which God conveys Good News, the stammering voice chosen to tell God’s Story again and again. Just as a water-bath can become a new birth and the beginning of life with Christ, or breaking bread and passing cups of wine can nourish the soul and make strong and healthy disciples to follow Jesus, the sermon’s the Spirit’s work, not the preacher’s.

In what ways do you find preaching “sacramental”?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hanging Out with the Saints

“The Communion of saints” is a slippery subject. The phrase slides by at the bottom of the Apostle’s Creed, when and if it’s recited. Even though we affirm our convictions about the term, it’s hard to grasp.

Our understanding of a “saint” has several different emphases.

The word, of course, means holy, in the sense of being dedicated or even consecrated to God.

One view is that “saints” are our spiritual ancestors. A look back in the history of God’s people reveals a parade of ordinary folks who have demonstrated in their lives a loyalty to God and the pursuit of justice and peace in extraordinary ways. They are the heroes and heroines of the faith, showing in their words and actions examples of faithful witness to God. Our faith is built on them, and remembering is instructive.

Not only are these saints people of the past, they are still around. The witness of Scripture is that God’s faithful do not vanish in death, but are raised to another reality in the heavenly courts with God. They become the “heavenly hosts” and they are with us on a Sunday morning to join in the singing of praise to the Almighty.

A third emphasis is found in the biblical use of the word “saints” to apply to the people following Jesus. Members of the different churches that started up in the New Testament are referred to as “saints” (see for example Acts 9:13 and 32; Acts 26:10; Philippians 4:2). Those who used the term were well aware it did not mean “perfect”—the first saints were human and had their flaws (see for example Galatians 2:11 ff.)

The word is almost always used in the plural, stressing the communal nature of people loyal to the Lord. In a sense, when the New Testament uses the word “saints”, it’s referring to the church, the Body of Christ (see Ephesians 4:12).

This last emphasis suggests that the term “saints” could rightfully be applied to all of us today, although many would balk at accepting it. We are inclined to steer clear of labels that promote our piety or righteousness, and such modesty is appropriate. Like the first generation followers of Jesus, we’re not perfect either.

In Christian worship, all the saints gather, past and present, dead and alive, to join in common praise of God. We are summoned to the Table by our Lord to celebrate in communion not only with God, but with one another.

Those saints of the past are with us, including our own parents and family members, teachers, mentors, role models, friends who have gone before us—all are with us once again. By the grace of God, when we worship, time changes from calendar time to eternal time, and the church is fully assembled.

Also the saints around the world are with us. God’s people sing their praise globally in every language of the world, and we do well to remember that Pentecost happens every Sunday. The whole Body of Christ worships in full communion.

Our liturgy has modest references to the “communion of saints”, apart from the Apostles’ Creed. For example, in the Prayers of the People we find:
“God of all generations,
we praise you for all your servants
who, having been faithful to you on earth,
now live with you in heaven.
Keep us in fellowship with them,
until we meet with all your children
in the joy of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Also in the Great Thanksgiving at the Table:
“Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with choirs of angels,
with prophets, apostles, and martyrs,
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:
The people may sing or say:
Holy, holy, holy Lord….”


Architecturally, some churches are more obvious about the presence of all the saints at worship.

Many older churches in New England have resisted the temptation of putting stained glass in their windows, and kept the clear glass so worshippers can look out at the church graveyard and remember the saints at worship with them. One church near me has built a new sanctuary with a glass wall so everyone has a really good view of the outside markers and monuments to the saints gone before.

Orthodox churches are “in your face” with icons of the saints, often full figure and life-size. In the new church at a nearby monastery, saints march around the upper walls. Among them are representatives from different traditions as well as the typically Orthodox persons.

As we think in terms of the assembling of the saints from the past with the saints of the present in worshipping Almighty God, perhaps we should remember the yet-to-come saints of the future. Salvation History has come through ages to us and will continue when we have departed the scene. It’s worth pondering what kind of legacy we will leave our children, what remembrance and inspiration coming generations will have from our loyalty to God?

Do you remember your spiritual ancestors in your church? Does your congregation observe any “saints’ days”?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Prayers of the People and HIPAA

Anyone who has recently had dealings with the medical community knows that the initials HIPAA stand for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. It’s a law including rules that protect the privacy of our medical information.

Neither the law nor its rules apply specifically to churches and services of worship. Nevertheless, its wisdom is worth our attention.

Here are a few examples of why this is a good idea:

I was getting myself oriented before the service where I was to be the guest preacher when I was approached by a woman who thrust a slip of paper into my hand with her request/instruction: “Please include this in the prayers this morning." The note included a name, a hospital, and a diagnosis to be shared with the worshippers. I told her I’d include the name and hospital; I left out the diagnosis.

Another time I was attending worship in a congregation that had the custom of offering an open microphone as part of the Prayers of the People. As I remember it, a woman came to the mike and spoke for five minutes or more about the illness of a friend.

Still another church I’ve attended prints the names of all who are sick on a bulletin insert, and has been known on occasion to describe ailments.

The practice in the church I often attend is more discrete. The pastor solicits from the people the names they wish to be included in the prayers, and he uses only the first names, and no illnesses are mentioned. After the service I suppose private conversations reveal some of the full names and medical situations.

Of course these can be held up as examples of compassionate caring among members of the church community. It is right that we are concerned for the well-being of one another, and vitally important that we hold in our prayers all who are in need, including the sick in our midst. The Prayers of the People should include prayers for one another.

At the same time, some HIPAA-like rules should be in place to guide us. Here are a few suggestions.

Rule 1. Remember that the Lord’s Day worship is a public event. What is said there could just as well be yelled on the street corner or printed on page one of the New York Times. Using people’s full names in the prayers of intercession should be approached with extreme caution and sensitivity to the people involved.

Rule 2. No one’s name should be mentioned out loud in worship or put on a prayer list without their personal permission. Some people willingly give such permissions, while others would rather keep it all to themselves.

Rule 3. Be extremely careful about passing along medical information about somebody in worship, or anywhere else for that matter. HIPAA rules restrict what medical people can do. For those of us who are not medical people, our ignorance almost guarantees inaccuracy.

Rule 4. Be sure to mark the line between concern and gossip. It can be easily crossed. For example: A prominent woman in the church had gone to the hospital to be tested and treated for what was feared might be cancer. It turned out to be something far less and curable. Nevertheless, the word went around that she had cancer. Her friends looked at her as though she was at death’s door, and she began to wonder if maybe she did have cancer and the doctor didn’t tell her the truth…and so forth. When that gets out of control, it’s like a room full of loose ping pong balls.

The models for Prayers of the People that we find in the Book of Common Worship(1993) call for the insertion of (first) names of the sick and sorrowing audibly, or in the silence of one’s thoughts. The eight forms shown in the BCW, and the outline for free style prayer that precedes them, are more than adequate resources for showing compassion and respective personal privacy at the same time.

Are people’s names mentioned out loud in the intercessions in your church service? Do you print names of sick and bereaved on your bulletin insert, in your newsletter? Do you have their permission first?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Turn on the Light

The Prayer for Illumination is used in many churches these days, but it is too easily slid by in a rush to get to the main event. So it would do us well to step off to one side for a few minutes and consider what we are doing in this particular act.

First of all, where does the Prayer for Illumination go in the order of service, and what does it do?

I’ve heard preachers (although I am pleased to report not so many lately) who start the sermon with a biblical quote or paraphrase of Psalm 19:14. In the NRSV it reads: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” It’s probably a worthwhile prayer for any preacher to make, but just before speaking from the pulpit is a little too late. Better the preacher should pray that prayer every time he or she cracks a commentary or puts pen to paper. The proclamation of the word doesn’t begin when the preacher climbs into the pulpit—it starts with study. And “illumination” is needed from the start.

The other problem with placing the prayer here is that it is left in the singular—it’s a prayer only for the illumination of one person in the room. It’s just a guess, but probably everyone could use the prayer. So, it’s best used as a corporate prayer.

This requires some alteration, a slight paraphrase, so that it includes all worshippers. I’ve heard some keep it as a prayer articulated by the preacher before the sermon, with a few word changes: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer.” Still, it’s in the wrong place.

In many churches, the liturgist or lay reader is responsible for the Prayer Illumination immediately before the reading of the Scriptures. This is the proper location for the prayer, and it should definitely be inclusive of everyone in the room. It is the people’s prayer. That leaves one to wonder why everyone should not say it together.

There are other verses from Scripture, like Psalm 24:4,5, that can be adapted for this purpose, but there is a plethora of such prayers available in resources such as the Book of Common Worship (1993) that have been accumulated for our use.

The Prayer for Illumination is best selected by a worship leader (perhaps the Lay Reader or Liturgist) in advance, so it can be printed out and prayed in unison by all. If the prayer’s intent is to be a corporate one, then the whole worshipping body should be actively involved.

What would be even better is to make this prayer into service music. Sometimes a single verse from a hymn can be co-opted for this. I pawed through my hymnal for quite a while, however, without coming up with one that really worked.

Coupled with a familiar hymn tune, a simple text can allow the prayer to sing. For example, to the tune Munich (“O Word of God Incarnate”):
O Word of God incarnate,
in Scripture now revealed,
Illumine all our spirits,
until to you we yield.
Then teach us your compassion,
and show us paths to peace,
so we will live out your love
and blessings will increase.
This is my own modest effort, and a challenge to better poets to give it a try.

You don’t need to be told why this prayer is so important, but let’s rehearse the reasons anyway.

For one thing, it’s not a matter of intellectually understanding the Bible—it’s a matter of listening with our hearts and letting the Word confront us and get deep inside us. For something as serious as that, we need help, Divine help. The prayer is our acknowledgement of our own limitations and our need for the Spirit to grab us, get our attention, and make it possible for us to listen and really hear.

The prayer also slows down the proceedings of worship and keeps us from lunging forward. It’s a “stop-look-and-listen” kind of prayer, telling us to watch where we’re going next, and prepared for the Scripture-Sermon duet.

The Prayer for Illumination, when said by all, is a reminder that the Bible belongs to the whole church, not just the clergy. The Spirit does not just whisper in the preacher’s ear—the Spirit shouts in the souls of people in the pews as well.

Do you have a Prayer for Illumination in your church service? Where does it come from? Is it spoken by one person or everyone?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Polarities of Worship

The basic idea of this post has been “a work in progress” for decades and has supplied me with numerous insights about Christian worship. I’m sure it will continue to be refined and revised. What follows is lengthier than usual for this blog; nevertheless, it is but a sketchy outline of a concept that I hope will provoke the reader’s thoughts as it has mine.

One way of understanding the phenomenon of worship is to look at three fundamental polarities and how they intersect in the liturgical arena. (See the diagram below.)

The three “polarities” are often dealt with separately without direct application to the experience of worship, much less with each other. Theology is, however, integral to ecclesiology, and both have a significant connection to the chronology of God’s history with humankind, God’s own in particular. All apply to worship.

All three “polarities” have inherent tensions which seek resolution, or not. Sometimes the tension is itself the dynamic that enlivens the relationship. Too easy a resolution may lead to a partial, and therefore flawed understanding.

THEOLOGY: THE DIVINE AND HUMAN

The first is the polarity with God on one end and all of us on the other. The two are opposites: God the wholly (holy) Other, eternal, mighty and perfect, versus mere mortal humans, weak and sinful. The divine-human opposition produces theological tension.

This tension, however, approaches resolution because of the divine initiative and in the human response. God takes the initiative in the Incarnation, coming to us in Jesus Christ. True life is modeled by Jesus, yet even more, Jesus is the one extending God’s call to us to “repent” and turn our lives around facing toward the Almighty One. This initiative from God calls for a response from the human end.

Resolution is only approached, however, since sin and repentance is an on-going process. Always the distance between God and ourselves is great, in spite of the fact of God’s jumping the gap in the Incarnation. Immanence and transcendence must always be side by side, balancing one another.

God’s initiative in reaching out to humankind is impressive, in the sense that it leaves an impression on us and prompts us to express ourselves. The primary expression we make is recognition of God and the Incarnate Jesus Christ. Our expression often comes in the form of liturgical worship, including making commitments of self and possessions. Often our responses may be very subjective and personal, yet even as individuals, we are part of the humanity God is addressing.

All of this plays out in Christian worship in a sort of dialogue, a conversation, as it were, between God and the worshippers. Some liturgists stress this dialogue in arrangement of the elements of the service. For example, the Call to Worship in words of Scripture echoes God’s voice; this is answered by a prayer and/or hymn, a human expression of praise. Another example is the conversation around Confession: the summons to confession, the people’s prayer, and the assurance of God’s forgiveness. At the Table, worshippers hear the Invitation and respond with obedient eating and drinking. And so forth.

CHRONOLOGY: HISTORY, BEGINNING TO END

The second polarity involved in Christian worship has to do with time. At one end is Genesis, the beginning, creation, and at the other is Revelation, the end, the culmination of all history, the fulfillment of God’s promises.

In between is what is often referred to as “Salvation History”, the record of God’s activity in reaching out to humankind from start to finish. Stories of “saints” in the Old Testament and New tell of God’s on-going conversation with his children.

Salvation History does not end with us, however, but is projected into the future, all the way to the end. Therefore, many more “saints” are due on the scene to continue with God after we are gone. This polarity of history is not only about the past, but also about the future.

Salvation History calls for both remembering (anamnesis) and expectation or hope (prolepsis), including God’s promises for the end of time.

The tension between past and future needs to be kept in worship. To focus worship solely on the past or on the future in order to resolve the tension is to make worship antiquarian or otherworldly—both of which deny our participation in the Now of Salvation History, and ignore God’s active presence as well.

Awareness of the past, present, and future is clearly evident in Christian liturgy. The Confession section obviously deals with past failure, present repentance, and commitment to future obedience. The celebration of the Eucharist is replete with references to time: “Do this in remembrance of me.” - “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” – “Keep us faithful in your service until Christ comes in final victory, and we shall feast with all your saints in the joy of your eternal realm.” And so forth.

Time, in this view, is to be understood primarily as kronos time, calendar time, one day after another, year following year, through the centuries.

ECCLESIOLOGY: THE CHURCH, FAITH AND MISSION

The third polarity present in Christian worship has to do with the fundamental nature of the Church of Jesus Christ.

At one and the same time, the Church is, and must be, a community of faith and a force for mission in ministry to the world. These two purposes of the church are, and will necessarily be, in constant tension. It is in that tension, that the dynamic of the Spirit springs forth.

On one end is what is called kononia, often translated as “fellowship”, although that is an insufficient and often misinterpreted word. Kononia refers to those God has called out (ekklesia) to be the people of God in the world. In the present discussion, they are the followers of Jesus, those who responded to his call through the centuries, who have recognized him present in their lives and in their worship.

By its very nature as God’s gathered people, the Church has an exclusive aspect to it. Clearly not everyone in the world belongs to that gathering—many are obviously outside. The Church’s exclusiveness, however, is never cause for judgment—God is full of surprises.

The Church is gathered by God for mutual support, for education and equipment, in carrying out its mission outside the church building. The mission of serving is called diakonia.

The service the Church is called to perform is the ministry of Christ, no less. To perform it, the gathered church must be scattered throughout the world. The Church is called to gather and refresh its life, then scatter and risk its life in following the Risen Christ.

The exclusiveness of the Church’s kononia is now countered by its diakonia; it is service, Jesus style, indiscriminately to anyone and everyone in need. Simultaneously though the Church is a people chosen by God, in the world it must be broadly inclusive in rendering service in God’s name. All of this finds expression in our prayers of intercession and petition—for every prayer carries within it a commitment to action to help it come true.

Obviously, for us to settle into one or the other, koinonia or diakonia, would be to minimize who and what we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ. Koinonia-only leaves us in a pious version of a country club; diakonia-only leaves us indistinguishable from those who serve others without the strength of the risen Christ.


THE CHURCH AT WORSHIP: KAIROS

It is at this point that we see how the three polarities intersect.

Along the way of Salvation History, at the “Now” of our worship, we look fore and aft remembering God’s promises and hoping for their fulfillment.

In the life of the Church we gather to be strengthened for the scattered service we are sent to perform; and out in the world, we long for the refreshment and strength we receive in the community gathered.

And now as the Communion of Saints at worship, we perceive God Incarnate in our midst, and time changes. Time is no longer chronological time—now it is kairos, the moment of time that makes the difference, the spark of the Spirit that makes the Word spoken to me, the insight that changes the character of our congregation and calls us to new ministry. Kairos is God’s time, when God breaks through to us, overcoming our defenses, clearing away the debris of our lives and filling us with fresh enthusiasm.

When all three polarities are evident, Christian worship displays a vibrancy and vitality, celebrating God’s past actions and longing for God’s promised future, cultivating community and carrying out ministry in the world, as God ‘s overwhelming grace captures hearts and minds and souls. So the Church of Jesus Christ proceeds in faith and service to Almighty God by the power of the Spirit.

How do you find these polarities existing in your worship services? Do you try to resolve the tensions, or do you find them dynamic.?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Lord's Lunch

Taking a break from a national church committee meeting, we were in the restaurant of a hotel near O’Hare Airport. As we took our places, the waitperson arrived to pass out menus and take our beverage orders. It was only a few minutes later that the drinks arrived, and then the meal was served. One person received an extra he had requested: a dinner roll.

He stood at his place with the bread in his hands, raised his eyes upwards and said, “Praise to You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, You bring forth food for all to eat.”* Whereupon he broke the bread, took a piece for himself to eat, and passed the rest around the table. It was a simple blessing, but it had a powerful impact on us.

The committee was the General Assembly’s Special Committee to Study the Nature, Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper (1974-1978). As you would imagine, we spent hour upon hour discussing the Lord’s Supper inside and out. We talked about theological constructs, philosophical background, historical practices, and a whole host of metaphors and images—all in an effort to more fully appreciate the mystery of the Sacrament.

From time to time, when we wanted to find handy ways of describing the Eucharist, we tried making comparisons. Maybe we could better comprehend the Lord’s Supper if we could point to some other meal that it was like. For example, the Lord’s Supper is like a wedding banquet. Or maybe like a celebration of one’s life at a birthday party. Or let’s say it’s like a memorial dinner. And so forth.

Each comparison has something to offer, flagging one or two insights, but none is adequate in itself, and all fail utterly in one or another regard.

What I began to realize, as did others, was that maybe we had the wrong end frontwards in our efforts to understand the full significance of the Lord’s Supper. It was not only that the Lord’s Supper was like other specific celebrative meals, but that all meals, every meal every day should be thought of as being like the Lord’s Supper.

What we celebrated in that Chicago restaurant so long ago was the “Lord’s Lunch”, a clear reflection of the Lord’s Supper. As one member of the group pointed out, we were “eating and drinking with Jesus” at that lunch much as we do at the Table in church on Sunday.

Yet it is because we gather at the Lord’s Table on Sunday that we know to “eat and drink with Jesus” at every other meal. As our eyes are open and we recognize Christ at the Table in church, so we are more aware of his presence with us at all times.

Several results follow from this insight. For one thing we are more conscious of the relationships we have around meals: with family, friends, business associates, or even strangers. The relationships cease to be incidental and casual, because Christ is recognized to be present. Now, the simple act of breaking bread and sharing it signals the sharing of Christ.

We also become more pointedly aware of the importance of food in life, and the tragedy of its lack in so many places. When Christ is present at our meals, we are nourished and encouraged to find ways to share what God provides with others. Hunger then becomes a moral issue, and the Lord’s Supper and all meals strengthen us to respond in generosity and faith.

Saying a prayer at the beginning of a common meal is nothing new. But connecting it directly to the Lord’s Supper may be a fresh thought for many. Adding a simple gesture of breaking and sharing a piece of bread strengthens the connection.

The relationship of the Lord’s Supper to our daily meals is weakened greatly, however, by spasmodic and irregular celebration of the Sacrament. To share the Holy Meal only occasionally is to discount its importance, and deny its centrality in Christian life and faith.

Do you say a prayer before every meal? Including those eaten in public? Do you ever use a gesture such as sharing broken bread around the table? How often do you celebrate the Lord’s Supper in your church?

_____
*Based on Jewish and early Christian prayers. See The Book of Common Worship (1993), p. 595.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why Lay Readers?

Or, for that matter, why not? In some minds, it’s a real question that deserves to be debated.

For many of us, however, having lay people leave their pews in the congregation to stand at the lectern and read the Scripture lessons for the day is an experience so common as to be unquestioned. The practice became immensely popular in many Protestant churches, across denominational and theological lines, during the period of liturgical renewal in the 1960s and 1970s.

One interpretation that prevailed at the time was that having lay readers reflected the historical rise of the Scriptures from the community of God’s people, from the community of Christ’s followers. Therefore, it was right and true that lay people should be the ones to present the Word in Scripture to the community gathered at worship.

This approach is perhaps a bit of a stretch. To claim validity for lay readers on the basis of the historical development of Scriptures, true as it may be, is more than is needed. The Protestant Reformation claimed for every person the right and responsibility to read and understand Scripture, so for any one of them to stand up and read the Bible to the assembly is a logically and theologically sound act of worship.

Lay readers coming forward take on symbolic meaning, and, therefore, carry theological freight. The action suggests that ordinary people have an important role in the church’s worship, namely, presenting the biblical texts for the day.

Now there are others who don’t see it this way. Their argument is that the Scriptures come to the community, not from it—and should then be read to the people, not by one of the regular people. The Bible is God’s Word and should be spoken only by those properly called by God to do so. After all, the lay reader is not trained for such—much as preaching requires special training, so does picking up the Bible on Sunday morning to read out loud.

Of course, this position slips easily into clericalism of the first order: only clergy are capable of reading the printed Word in public worship. That is patently silly, since you and I have heard more than one ordained clergyperson incompetent to read a text with sense and understanding. Ordination, unfortunately, guarantees nothing in that regard.

On the other hand, I’d have to confess that I’ve heard plenty of lay people not able to read aloud and communicate meaning. So, while the premise of reserving Scripture reading in public to the clergy is wrong as it can be, it makes a point: anyone who reads Scripture aloud needs training and practice.

If we are going to ask members of our churches to stand up in front of their peers and read, for everyone’s sake we need to give them help and equipment to do so.

Some ministers recruit men and women, old and young, to provide a core of readers, and then spend time with them periodically. The crew is gathered to read through the lectionary texts for the forthcoming weeks. Difficult passages are flagged and rehearsed.

It also helps to have the lay readers study the texts they are reading. The pastor/preacher can provide helpful insights and commentary that will enhance the reader’s understanding of the text.

A well prepared lay reader can be an inspiration to the rest of the congregation. Such a person encourages Scripture reading by everyone outside the Sunday service.

There are some clergy, myself included, who like to hear the Scripture read by someone else before preaching. Passages I’ve read again and again in preparation of the sermon sound different to my ears when I am listening rather than speaking. On more than one occasion, the Spirit has prompted a fresh insight for me by the voice of a lay reader—and a last-minute improvement of the sermon.

Do you have lay readers in your church? Do they read all the texts on a Sunday? Who reads the Gospel lesson? Do your lay readers have special training?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eclectic Worship

One of the biggest problems in the world of liturgy today is that no one is eclectic enough. Most folks tend to glom on to their peculiar brand of worship and stick to it.

This is no great surprise when it’s the Roman Catholics, because in spite of Vatican II (or maybe because of it) they have settled back into the way of “tradition.” But it is, or should be surprising when Protestants lock themselves into their various boxes.

It appears, however, that in terms of worship reform in many circles, the tendency is to pull in the boundaries and adopt a purist posture. The so-called “free” churches stress the American frontier model centered around the sermon, with all else being anticipatory preparation for the homiletic event. Anglicans and Episcopalians seem to have continued their retreat into the liturgy as defined by The Book of Common Prayer in one of its many versions. Protestants such as Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians seem to have finished their reform and settled into the comfort of the result. Worship gets to be sedentary.

The point is, it doesn’t seem that anyone is eclectic enough these days when it comes to Sunday worship—they’re not looking for and incorporating the best in various traditions. And this is surprising when it comes to Protestants, because it seems that we have forgotten the battle cry of the Reformation: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda—The church reformed, always being reformed.

Certainly such reformation should be constantly taking place in the arena of worship. The liturgy of the church is not a fossil from the ancient past, nor is it the latest and greatest embedded for all time in some spiritual amber. There’s always room for reform.

Of course, that doesn’t mean change for the sake of change. Nor does it mean calling in all the latest gadgetry so we can be in step with the newest digital fad. Reform means much more.

First of all, the Reformation slogan stressed that the church is “always being reformed.” This is the work of the Spirit. We do not reform ourselves—we require spiritual strength beyond our own. Liturgical reform, then, is accomplished when the Spirit is welcomed by our open hearts and open minds. The prayers of God’s people ought always to include, “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.” Reform in the church is always a spiritual exercise.

But it is also requires intellectual effort. The best thing Vatican II did for Protestants was to remind us that we had 1500 years of history before the Reformation that belonged to us too, and there could be found much liturgical richness that had been forgotten or rejected by the Reformers. How do we know what the liturgical options are if we are not students of the history of God’s people?

This is one of the big reasons pastors and musicians and others responsible for worship in a congregation just keep on keeping on. They simply don’t know what the options are. They look through catalogues or leaf through commentaries, but they haven’t gone through the repository of theology and practice of the people of God at worship through the centuries.

Clergy and musicians need to be students. The time for learning did not end with the degree—it is just beginning when one enters the parish. Just as prayer sustains clergy and musician in offering their talents to God in worship, so disciplined thought and study will enable them to see possibilities they never knew were there. Then they will be able to educate the congregation as well.

An example of this, but not done very well in most places, is the greeting of peace. When this act of worship was “discovered” by Protestants back in the late 1960s, there was great excitement. The biblical reference was cited (---), it found slots in the service after the prayer of confession or before the Eucharist, and it worked wonderfully to revitalize worship. But the congregational education hasn’t always been so good. Too often it slips into a mundane greeting, a repetition of hellos spoken before church or to be said afterward. The exchange of God’s Peace as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ is a far cry from “howdy.”

So, the way to go, if we are serious about reform, is to stay open to the surprises of the Spirit and do our homework. That way we will be more eclectic.

Notice, if you will, that the word “eclectic” is based on the same Greek root words as “ecclesia”. They both arise from “call” and “out”. Just as the church is “called out” by God to be God’s people in the world, so the planners of worship are to “call out” those forms and acts and arts that will serve God’s people in their prayers and praise.

Eclectic worship is not random selection, but wise and imaginative selection in which God’s Spirit has a playful part.

How attentive are your clergy and musicians to music and spoken word in liturgy of other churches?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Calendar Clutter

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had an impact on the Roman Catholic Church to be sure, but it also sent shock waves through the rest of Christianity. For Protestants, the document on the liturgy was a wake-up call alerting many to take a fresh look at Sunday morning and other worship experiences.

One immediate result was increased conversation between Roman priests and Presbyterian and other clergy. In our neck of the woods the dialogue started with priests asking about sermon preparation and pastors inquiring about the drama of the Eucharist. Right away we realized we had much to learn from each other. The discussion went on to many other things, including the calendar of the Christian Year.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI approved the “General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the New General Roman Calendar” as given by Vatican II.

Roman Catholics are still arguing about this action because it represented, in the minds of some (many?), a drastic change. For example, some ninety saints no longer appeared in the general calendar. Missing in action were notables such as St. Nicholas, St. Christopher, and even St. George of England.

The reason for this “adjustment” was to reduce the commemorations that clutter up the calendar and obscure the basic and central celebration of the redemptive act of God in Jesus Christ on the Lord’s Day. Sunday is the foundation of the calendar on which are built the major seasons and special days.

Now, all this is well and good, but what does it have to do with us Protestants, especially those of us in the Reformed tradition?

In one way, we Protestants have gone in the opposite direction from the Romans. We have historically challenged or even eliminated special days and seasons, and have rarely devoted a day to commemoration of a person. Christmas was not celebrated until the latter part of the nineteenth century by many Puritan-Calvinist Protestants, ignored because it was originally a pagan festival. In some circles, the same was true of Easter, which retains the name of the pagan God, Eostre. Many thought the only real worship took place on Sundays.

After Vatican II, however, we began rethinking our liturgy, and even Presbyterians and other Reformed folks have been broadening our calendars.

For one thing, we are paying more attention to the seasons of the year.

In the church where I began my ministry half a century ago, Advent was not observed, and Christmas was a one-day event. Few people in the congregation could spell Epiphany, and fewer had any notion what it meant. Lent was up and running, but Easter was just a single day and not a season. Pentecost was a puzzle.

Now the basic structure of the Christian Year is more evident in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, built around the two seasons of Christmas and Easter, with preparatory seasons of Advent and Lent, and culminating days of Epiphany and Pentecost.

A few other days of import were also included, but only a few. Pope Paul VI had it right, that we should not have so much going on in the calendar as to make clutter that will obscure the Lord’s Day and its primacy. It’s a directive that we all do well to heed, Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.

There is, however, another kind of clutter in our calendars, and it comes from the “secular” side. How many preachers will dare go through a service on Mother’s Day without bestowing laud and honor to the moms in the room? Even Labor Day, Fourth of July, Memorial Day and other public observances sometimes elbow their way into Christian worship, preoccupying and distracting worshippers from the main message the Lord’s Day proclaims.

It happens to the seasons of the year as well. Advent is often so overlaid with gift-giving emphases that the idea of preparing for Christmas is distorted. Christmas itself can just vanish as the wrappings are taken to the trash, and the message of the Incarnation is blurred at best. Easter gets short shrift when it’s shortened to one day and filled with colored hen’s eggs, bunnies and bonnets, and the rock of the Resurrection is not seen as the foundation of worship every week.

So, the question for us is, how can we reduce the clutter in the calendar, in Paul VI’s words, “restoring Sunday to its original rank and place of esteem in the minds of all as the ‘first holyday of all’”?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prayer, Preaching and the People

If you stop to think a moment or two about the integrity of worship, then you won’t be surprised to find seemingly different parts having important connections.

The present subject under consideration is what the “prayers of the people,” also known as the “pastoral prayer,” has to do with the preacher’s sermon, and why this might be important.

There is one obvious difference, of course: the prayer of the people is addressed to God, while the sermon is delivered to the people. Therefore they have very different functions in the service, the sermon as an extension of the proclamation of the Word, and the people’s prayers as part of the response to the Word. Each has its appropriate time and each has a unique sound.

Nevertheless, the two acts of worship are related intimately.

First of all, both will be conscious of language (grammar, syntax, vocabulary) that will be appropriate to the worshipping congregation.

The prayers of the people, in order to be truly the people’s prayers, will be crafted in language that fits more or less comfortably in their thoughts and speaking. Such usable prayer-language will be straightforward and direct rather than resorting to forced elegance or strained eloquence. The speech of prayer, especially if it is to be said by worshippers aloud, must approach something they might actually say, and not sound like the voice of a stranger.

This is equally true of the preacher’s language. If the sermon is to be a conversation or dialogue in any sense, those listening must also be formulating their responses mentally. Language from the pulpit that sounds foreign will suffer diminishing impact on the listeners in the pew.

A second consideration has to do with structure: both the people’s prayers and the preacher’s sermon have structure, it is to be hoped.

Yes, of course, there are times for adlib prayers, even within the context of the prayers of the people. But for public worship, in order to be sure to cover the necessary ground, some outline is necessary. Rambling prayers most often disintegrate into repetition, and from thence into boredom.

Similarly, in terms of the sermon, an adlib emphasis or enlargement can be exciting. But for the thoughtful preparation and presentation of a sermon, there needs to be some evidence of structure revealing a beginning, middle and end, at the very least. The progression of logic will reveal a theological growth from start to finish which the hearers can follow. Without some such skeleton, the sermon will likely become a mere blob of belief of minimal concern to any who might still be listening at the end.

The third matter that links the prayers of the people to the sermon is the prayer life of the preacher.

Prayer is an art that is learned by life-long practice. Going to seminary or ordination guarantee nothing at all when it comes to being adept at prayer. But practicing prayer consistently helps continual spiritual growth.

Now, part of that preacher’s prayer life is going to be praying for the congregation, their real and spiritual needs, and the world within which they live. The lives of the worshippers, as best the preacher can know them, will set the agenda both for the prayers of the people and the sermon.

Even though the prayers of the people usually follow the sermon in the service, the preacher might do well to prepare them first. Prayerful and thoughtful consideration of what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the people, and how to put it in words for them, is not a bad thing to do to get ready to draft a sermon that the same people will hear.

The “prayers of the people” used to be called the “pastoral prayer,” which in many instances was spoken entirely by the pastor. It was considered “pastoral” because folks understood that the pastor was one who would be sensitive to human needs worthy of articulation in prayer to the Almighty. That pastoral sense is important to retain in our worship, not just in the prayers, but in the preaching as well.

In seminary, we were regularly reminded that we should spend as much time in preparation for Sunday in finding the right words for the prayers as we would in writing a sermon. Based on the experience of my years of ministry, I’m convinced that’s a good idea.

Who prepares the “prayers of the people” at your church? Do they come word for word from a book? Are they printed for all to see in the worship order? Would you say them differently? Would you include different petitions?