Sunday, January 30, 2011

Looking Over the Horizon

“Eschatology” is the word for today, meaning “study or consideration of the last things,” by which could be meant the end of one’s life, the end of the world or the return of Christ.

I bring it up because, in spite of the references to the “last things” in our liturgy, we pay it only fleeting attention. Perhaps it’s because we are put off by those who project their faith entirely into the future, to the neglect of present discipleship and past traditions—sometimes designated as “pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye”—making worship detached from the real world.

Worship is a here-and-now experience. Nevertheless, Christian liturgy is founded on the experience of the past. It is also filled with hopes for the future.

Christians look back to see the life, teaching and ministry, death and resurrection of Christ as recorded in Holy Scripture. We experience the risen Christ, as he promised, now in our midst when we gather in his name. Both these are plainly obvious in our worship. We tell the old story over and over, celebrating it on an annual pilgrimage we call the Year of the Lord. We pray in Christ’s name, and we experience his presence with us in the Eucharist as we recognize ourselves to be the Body of Christ.

Yet we are hesitant to even peek at the future. What God has in store for us is not yet in view, it is over the horizon. We don’t know exactly what is coming, and have no idea when whatever it is will arrive. Yet there are divine promises that what is headed our way is Good (with a capital “G”).

Enter eschatology. The core of Christian understanding of the last things, the end of life, the culmination of history, is the return of Jesus Christ to establish his rule in the world. We know Christ from the witness of biblical record and our own personal encounter, so we are not exactly clueless as to what his return would mean. Hard as it might be to look over the horizon, our vision of faith does give us glimpses, hopeful, happy glimpses.

Our liturgy witnesses to what is to come with frequent brief, pointed reminders of Christ’s imminent return, imminent because it could happen any moment. And these reminders are couched in hopeful, even longing terms.

Both the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds give witness to the second coming of Christ:
In the Nicene Creed, we affirm together, “…He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
The Apostles’ Creed has it tersely, “…and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

It is in the Eucharist Prayer, the Great Thanksgiving, that we most often find sentences and phrases that lift our sight to the vision of Christ’s return:
“We praise you that Christ now reigns with you in glory,
and will come again to make all things new.”
“Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and this wine
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising,
as we await the day of his coming.”

The brief acclamations to be used in the midst of the Great Thanksgiving consistently move from past to present to future, as in this example:
Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.

And the Thanksgiving comes to a close with:
“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 we should not forget the petition in the Lord’s prayer:
“…your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.”

At the end of the Words of Institution, the following is said:
“Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup,
you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord,
until he comes.”

Finally, in the Prayer After the Supper, we find:
“Loving God,
we thank you that you have fed us in this Sacrament,
united us with Christ,
and given us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet
in your eternal kingdom.”

The importance of all this is to remind us that we are not stuck in the present. On the contrary, the One who makes all things new is leading us toward a new world.

Our encounter with God on a Sunday morning inspires us to lift our sights to see over the horizon. Our present living should not only reflect where we’ve been, but where we’re going. With the vision of faith, we glimpse the fulfillment of God’s promises coming our way: a new world where Christ rules in grace and love and peace and justice, and all people join in singing his praise and living out his teachings. Our lives then are turned in the direction of God’s future, so we shall become champions of all that God has promised.

What does it mean to you to live now in the light of the coming of Christ? How does it show in liturgy? In hymns? Have you heard a sermon recently on Christ’s return or the fulfillment of Salvation History or the end of time?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Intimate Conversation

Not long ago I heard a sermon that reminded me of myself many years ago. It was really an essay disguised as a sermon.

When I started out, that’s pretty much what my sermons sounded like. I always dutifully did my homework, and it showed proudly in the workmanship of my sermon. Congregants could recognize diligence in every word. I remember one woman telling me that she could tell I was a scholar by my preaching.

Maybe that’s what set me to thinking about sermons in a different direction. Essays, no matter how scholarly, are not necessarily good sermons.

So a few weeks ago I was listening to “my kind of sermon,” a really excellent essay, by the way, covering all sorts of things relevant to the scriptural message. In the fifteen minutes or so the preacher held forth, there must have been a dozen or so citations, quotes or references to someone else by name who had something to chip in on the theme. It was an essay with footnotes—but the footnotes were not at the foot, they were inserted regularly throughout.

I don’t remember exactly when it was I quit using quotes or referencing someone else in sermons, but it was a good idea when ever it was.

Footnotes in a sermon are not only intrusive, but they also create a distraction in another way. When I say, “As John Jones, the great theologian said…” and then proceed to speaking John Jones’s words, we have a third party to the homiletical dialogue, making it a trialogue.

The problem is further exacerbated if John Jones doesn’t say precisely what I want him to say to fit in with what I’m saying. It’s easy to leave a wake of confusion by bringing outsiders into the discussion.

If I should read or hear something that strikes me as insightful regarding the biblical text or a particular issue, I do best to translate it into my own language. If I take the thought or concept and roll it around in my own thoughts for a few days, invariably it becomes my own and sounds authentically me.

Mulling over Scripture and issues and commentaries is one of those activities preparatory to preaching that looks to others, my wife included, like I’m just sitting there and not working. But mulling really is hard work, as is pondering and meditating.

Only on rare occasions will a quote be so on point, so powerful, so pertinent that it cannot be abandoned but demands to be used verbatim, with reference.

The rule, as far as I’m concerned, is that the Scripture must speak to the heart and soul of the preacher before he or she will find anything to say from the pulpit. The message has to be owned and internalized, not borrowed from someone else. When it has taken up residence in the preacher, then the conversation can begin with the congregation.

Sermons are dialogues, in spite of the fact that only one person is speaking. Any preacher can tell you that just by looking at the people in the pew, he or she can tell if folks are listening and hearing, or not. Facial expression, body language, attitudes all speak volumes in response to the word proclaimed.

Someone once said that sermons are “intimate conversations with people you love.” Not all conversations with people you love are sermons, obviously, but sermons are intimate conversations between preachers and people bound together in the love of Christ.

It is the intimacy of the conversation that allows the preacher to speak from the heart, from the soul’s depth, to touch the listener deeply as well. This transaction takes place in the confidence that the Spirit is at work in the dialogue, making connections between God’s Word, the speaker’s words, and the listener’s life. The sermon is not superficial fluff. It is not even a diligently crafted essay. It is ultimately important, life-and-death material.

Preaching, then, is a pastoral activity. It is shepherding born of caring. For the preacher has discovered God’s grace, and must tell those she or he loves about that biblical treasure. It must always be a most intimate conversation.

Do your sermons have embedded footnotes? When you listen to a sermon, is the other half of the dialogue taking place in your thoughts?

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I suppose there are times when a recorded accompaniment for church singing is justifiable. Small congregations without resources for musicians or instruments, or to provide easy rehearsal, may resort to canned music in church.

Karaoke for church is big business these days, if what is available on-line is any indication. This kind of musical augmentation for soloists, choirs or congregation is a product of the digital age. Just because we have the technical wherewithal, however, doesn’t mean we have to use it, especially when it comes to music in church.

My recent church-going subjected me to different experiences of canned musical accompaniment, twice for real people singing, and once for a quiet period of meditation. Now I’m sure people had their reasons for using recordings, and the reasons might have been thoughtful, at least to them. Yet in all three of these situations competent musicians were on the scene, sitting idly by as the music played over one or more speakers.

The teenager who sang a solo asked to use the recording. It allowed her to practice at home and she was comfortable singing with the recording. Yet I would have thought that her very capable choir director could have provided more than adequate accompaniment and helped her sound even better.

I suspect that for the choir that sang to a recording, having a wider range of instruments had some appeal. Yet the dozen or more people singing could have done just as well or better with the versatile organ played by their much-better-than-average organist.

In terms of the “prayer-piano” recorded background, someone probably thought it was an easy way to cover a rather lengthy quiet time. Yet the church pianist, a whiz of a musician, was sitting in the front row, and could have stepped to the piano at the side of the room and played with feeling and grace.

Recordings used to back up human singing flatten the voices. Emphasis, tonal quality, phrasing are all locked by the recording. Interpretation is dictated by the recording rather than the singers. Those who sing to a recording are ill-served by such accompaniment. By definition, accompaniment is “something added to a principal thing to increase its impact or effectiveness,” and while in the short run karaoke may seem to do that, recorded instrumental back-up is limiting.

Also, using recordings rather than live music in church would appear to be a shortcut. God deserves more from us than that. We ought to be willing not only to put ourselves out a bit in worship, but to give God our very best. When it comes to the worship of God, there are no short-cuts.

Furthermore, recorded music is borrowed from another time and place and from other people. Worship is the “work of the people,” the people in the congregation here and now, not folks from somewhere else a while back. The best we have to give God in music may not be as polished as something we can buy on a recording, but it is our gift, which is what God wants. Otherwise we’d cancel the choir and play recordings of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

So I’d rather hear a full-fledged praise of God done the best that the singer(s) and other musicians can muster up, than hear digital substitutes for accompaniment. Live music, all the way around, is best of all.

Do you have karaoke in church? Have you ever sung in church with a recorded accompaniment?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Liturgical Convergence

There are still some of us around who remember the excitement of the Second Vatican Council, and how, though we were just sitting in the stands, we were cheering for John XXIII and his colleagues in their efforts for reform.

One of the major issues tackled by the Council was the reform and renewal of liturgy. This was vitally important, as they said in Sacrosanctum Concilium, “For the liturgy…, most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.” *

We looked happily at the prospects for reform of the Roman Catholic Church. Little did we imagine, at first, the impact this would make on us Protestants.

Some time after Vatican II, the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S. A. sent out word to the clergy to initiate conversations with Roman Catholic counterparts on issues raised by Vatican II.

After a flurry of phone calls, some of us neighboring Presbyterians assembled with our Roman brothers in the park on a warm summer day. (We all had sandwiches made by our spouses; the priests had sandwiches from the local deli.) The topic quickly became differences in worship. And before long, commonalities.

I remember how we pumped our priest brothers for knowledge about the Eucharist: How do we show the drama of the Supper better? What kind of bread (and wine) do you use? What goes into your Thanksgiving prayer? And so forth.

And they came back to us with questions about preaching: What goes into a sermon? How do you manage to come up with something every week? Do you use a lectionary? And so forth.

This kind of dialogue took place in many communities across the nation, and in the process we all learned, and we all taught.

In the decades that followed, we shared in public prayer events, then more clandestine common worship, followed by an occasional shared Eucharist, pulpit exchange and joint worship of whole congregations. It was a time of growth in mutual understanding by Protestants and Catholics alike.

What happened came to be called “Liturgical Convergence,” ** the common affirmation by Protestant denominations as well as the Roman Catholic Church of certain basic characteristics of Christian worship: the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper; the Word/Sacrament pattern as the norm; the use of a three-year lectionary; strong congregational participation in liturgy; and increased liturgical education.

In recent decades, however, things have changed, actually reverted to pre-Vatican II in many ways. In a nutshell, it seems that many have retreated back within their denominational walls. Even though the major Protestant denominations have produced high-quality liturgical resources, the cross-fertilization of the 60’s and 70’s has evaporated at the local level. For many pastors and others responsible for worship in a given church, the “liturgical convergence” has unraveled. Now churches pretty much travel on parallel liturgical tracks, never again to meet.

The unfortunate outcome of parallel liturgies is that there is no interaction, at least not of the kind following Vatican II. We are not experiencing common Christian worship with our friends in faith—not across Protestant-Catholic lines, but not even among people from different Protestant traditions. Not to mention what we might learn in sharing worship with our Jewish and Muslim friends. We’re all more or less inside our own boxes.

My humble proposal, then, is that every pastor be freed of pastoral responsibilities at least four times a year to worship with a Christian congregation of a different tradition including one Roman Catholic church, one Orthodox church, a non-Reformed Protestant church, and another Reformed church.

The hope would be for the pastor to have a conversation at each place of worship, then or later, with the presider or other leader, about what was done in worship and why. That sort of discussion will raise questions and open up possibilities about worship in the pastor’s congregation. From that process come renewal and reform of our liturgy.

What interaction do you have in worship with Christians of traditions other than your own? Does your congregation regularly share in worship with one of a different denomination? Does your education program include instruction about worship?

* You’ll find the complete text at this site, and it’s well worth a read even almost half a century later.

** For an excellent article about this, Google “Emerging Ecumenical Issues in Worship, by Horace T. Allen, Jr.”