Sunday, March 27, 2011

Open Table

A response by Abbot Richard to my post about “One Table” (February 17, 2011) raises an important issue. He advocates opening the Table to all baptized people, but draws the line there, saying: “However, in the present day many have gone over the edge in the opposite direction to have an invitation of 'ya'll come,' and baptism is not a consideration. I have been told that this is a form of hospitality that makes sure that everyone is included so that they feel good about themselves.”

The idea of a really open Table, welcoming anyone and everyone, comes from several directions.

For one thing, it is based on the understanding of the Eucharist as the Lord’s Supper, which is to say, it is not the Church’s Supper. For the church to set any condition on who is eligible to receive Communion is to step in front of the Risen Lord and usurp his place as Host. It is a control issue.

When the sacrament is treated as though it belongs to the church, it becomes more of an administrative process than an act of worship of Almighty God. In the Reformed Tradition, we might characterize that stance as a “discipline” of the church, educational but also controlling.

A second source of desire to have an Open Table is the understanding of the parity of Baptism and Eucharist. To make Baptism the requirement for admission to the Lord’s Table is to place the two sacraments in sequence, and give Baptism priority over the Lord’s Supper. They must always be in tandem, one following the other. One must be baptized in order to take Communion, but cannot take Communion without first being baptized. Hence the two sacraments are of unequal weight. Baptism is the controlling sacrament.

If indeed the two sacraments enact the same Gospel, one should not be restricting participation in the other. For example, children being nurtured toward baptism on their own confession of faith should not be turned away from the Table of the Lord.—what a vivid contrast to the behavior of Jesus himself! Others who hunger and thirst for what Jesus has to offer, baptized or not, should be welcome. This is not just feel-good hospitality, but extending the “gifts of God for the people of God” to all the people of God.

A third viewpoint challenges our traditional views of the roles of the two sacraments. Baptism has usually been considered as the “entrance” sacrament, the rite by which a person enters the ranks of God’s people in the church. The Eucharist, on the other hand, has been thought of as the “sending” sacrament, the Meal by which we are nourished as the Body of Christ to go into the world as His disciples.

If the sacraments are considered as balanced in meaning, then there is reason to consider the Lord’s Supper as an “entrance” sacrament as well, and Baptism also as a “sending” sacrament.

It’s easy, of course, to see Baptism as a sending sacrament. Roman Catholics have known this by their remembrance of the baptisms by the act of dipping the hand in water and making the sign of the cross as they enter a church building, and doing the same as they leave. That dual ritual serves as a reminder that the person came into the church by Baptism, and goes in to the world to live out that Baptism. It is a strong symbolic gesture.

It’s not so easy to see the Lord’s Supper as an “entrance” sacrament because we haven’t allowed that to happen. Mustering some objectivity and imagination, we can see possibilities of an un-baptized, even un-churched person coming into a church, hearing the Word proclaimed and Gospel announced, being stirred in the soul to respond, and then listening to the words of Jesus offering food and drink for the soul. Why not? What a wonderfully rich opportunity to show Christ’s hospitality.

All three of these perspectives point to the necessity of an Open Table.

But there is more to Abbot Richard’s critique. Is this, as he said, “over the edge in the opposite direction to have an invitation of ‘ya'll come’ and baptism is not a consideration”?

The answer is that after partaking of the Eucharist, within a reasonable time, the person would present him/herself to receive Baptism. Since the two sacraments are a matched set, both are involved in the making and nurture of a Christian.

But there is more required than a mere compliance with ritual actions. Coming to the Lord’s Table without having been baptized (or even having been baptized, for that matter) requires some soul-searching, à la I Corinthians 11:27ff.

First of all the stranger at the table needs to indulge in some self-examination. Why do I want to come to the table? What are my motives? Am I serious about this? Or am I being frivolous about it? Proclamation of the Gospel calls for such self-examination anyway, and all people in the pews need to do that kind of preparation.

Furthermore, the person needs to recognize Christ present in the Sacrament and understand that the nourishment comes from the “body of Christ.” I don’t suggest that there should be some sort of theological examination of newcomers to the Lord’s Supper. But surely the liturgy we use makes it clear that this is communing with the Risen Christ. If the person does not accept that in some regard, why would he or she even want to come to the table? This also is preparatory thought for anyone.

Then there is “discerning the body of Christ,” the recognition by all who share in the Holy Meal that they themselves are the “body of Christ” now, and it is through their physical actions that he continues his ministry to the world. By participating, the person would now be self-identified as belonging to Christ, a Christian, and would join in the on-going learning process of becoming a disciple (= learner).

Given these “prerequisites,” and perhaps others as well, and assuming they are emphasized sufficiently in preaching and proclamation of the Gospel in the liturgy, then welcoming a new person to the Lord’s Table is far from a casual “ya’ll come”. There is intent, commitment, and at least the desire to learn and grow in faith.

What is made explicit about self-examination in your worship service as the people prepare to approach the Table? Does your church have any restrictions about who may partake? How are people informed about them?

Monday, March 21, 2011

What We Do, and Why

One of the more important responsibilities of the “resident liturgical theologian” (a.k.a. the pastor) in any congregation is to teach the people about Christian worship. Of course, it goes without saying that the pastor will have done some liturgical learning in advance—well, actually, that needs to be said, and I just did.

There are a variety of ways of accomplishing this: adult classes, retreats, newsletter articles, sermons, discussions by the session, deacons and other church groups, special programs around special days and seasons, and more. All these efforts need to be pursued persistently.

A more foundational means of bringing a congregation up to speed about worship is the creation of what some churches have called “A Guide to the Worship Service.”

This is usually done by a group, or several groups of people—the more groups the better. The first group in line would be the congregation’s “worship committee.” This would include representative elders, deacons, musicians, and church members at large, along with the clergy.

The first task is for the worship committee to take the current order of service from a Sunday bulletin when the Lord’s Supper is included—better yet, when Baptism is also included. From that order the various headings are listed, omitting details like specific hymns and Scripture readings. All that’s needed is the bare bones. If there are headings for sections or segments of the service, those should be included as well.

Don’t reach yet for the Book of Common Worship (1993), or The Companion to the Book of Common Worship. You’ll want to look at them later, but there’s hard work to do first.

With the list of worship acts before you, the idea is to state briefly, for the benefit of strangers, what is being done and why in each instance.

What, for example, is the “Call to Worship”? Where does it come from? Why do we do it? Why at that point in the service?

What comes next? If it’s a hymn, what kind of hymn? If a prayer, then who is praying it and why?

And on down the list.

One thing you will note during this initial process is whether your service has a smooth flow, or, perhaps there are bumps. It gets bumpy when there is no rationale for the sequence. Worship has to make sense. If it doesn’t, then it’s not likely to be meaningful to the worshippers. Thoughtless liturgy breeds blind rote.

Once this first draft is completed by the worship committee, it should be a travelling road show. Committee representatives can present it for discussion by the session, board of deacons, choir, women’s group, men’s group, adult, youth and children classes, and anyone else that would sit still for it. Each time there may be changes, or at least suggestions.

Now it’s time for the worship committee to take it back, and compare it with those two reference books mentioned above. Where does your order vary from the orders in the Book of Common Worship? How do you explain the variations? What changes might you want to make in your draft? What suggestions have you gotten from the different groups that prompt you to modify your draft?

Now you finish your “Guide to the Worship Service,” or whatever you choose to call it, and have it printed for distribution. This piece will be a 5 ½ by 8 ½ bulletin-sized folder with brief “program notes” to give worshippers information about what they’re doing. While ostensibly aimed at new folks coming to church, it should be informative to the old timers as well.

As a way of thanking everyone who had a hand in it, take copies of the Guide to all the groups, and some member of the committee can walk them through it.

Obviously, throughout this whole process, the pastor is going to be the motivator and resource person. So he or she will have some homework to do before and during the development of the guide—and, one would hope, afterward as well.

Because the next project to be taken on is to do much the same thing, though on a larger scale. Now it’s not simply a “guide” but a “manual”—a theologically articulate explanation of the congregation’s worship, complete with some history and background. This process lends itself to the study of various aspects of worship, starting with the Sacraments, place of the Bible, preaching, prayer, praise, music, hymnody, and so forth, each one worthy of a class or series.

In the church I served, the process of doing both the Guide and the Manual was a rich one, for me as well as for those who participated in it. We didn’t get the broad participation of church groups I had hoped for, but both were useful documents for years afterward.

Does your church have a “guide to the worship service,” or a “manual of Christian worship?”

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sundays In Lent

We all know how to count the forty days in Lent by leaving out the Sundays. Lent is all weekdays. Sundays may be “in” Lent, but they are not “of” it. *

The reason usually given for this is that Sunday is always to be treated as a “mini-Easter”, a time of celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. So, Sunday would seem to be out of sync with the forty day journey with Jesus on his way to the cross, ending with him buried in the tomb.

You might characterize Sundays in Lent as a kind of oxymoron—certainly Sundays and weekdays in this season are incompatible, having almost opposite emphases. They should, however, be seen in a dialectic relationship, in tension with one another – resurrection rejoicing tugging with sorrowful penitence – and out of that tension comes the powerful truth of the season.

The term “Lent” is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word, lencten, which is usually translated as “spring.” Actually it is an ancient version of our word “lengthen” and had to do with the lengthening of daylight hours in the season of spring.

The Christian year often displays a sensibility to the seasons of nature, especially during Lent. While the cross looms ever nearer and darker on the horizon through the forty days, outdoors there is a slow but relentless dawning of more light every day as we move toward the glorious resurrection.

I bring all this up because it’s important to maintain that tension. Repentance, of course, is called for, and a sharp realization also of what God has done in working salvation in Jesus on the cross. At the same time, there is the rest of the story, and Lent is also a time for us to anticipate Easter—hence the Sundays which pop in every week to remind us of what’s coming.

Sunday worship during Lent, however, does not always keep this dynamic. Because many, if not most, Christians have no Lenten liturgical experience during the week, worship leaders feel obligated to cram the Sundays before Easter with Lenten emphases, to the neglect of celebrating the resurrection. Sundays in Lent, then, become Sundays of Lent. So the question is, how do you combine both emphases at the same time?

Every worship service is a journey. There is a built in GPS to worship that leads us from point A (Gathering) to point B (Sending), with two major stopping points along the way (Word and Sacrament).

The movement is also from darkness to light, from sorrow to joy, from repentance of sin to acceptance of forgiveness, from hunger and thirst as we wander in the deserts of our lives to the banquet of the Lord’s Table.

The sermon is one major turning point, moving us from the conviction of our sinfulness and alienation from God, to the confidence in God’s grace, love and power in giving new life.

Hymns, and service music, too, will accompany us on the journey—Lenten hymns early in the service, shift to more triumphant celebrations to send us on our way singing.

The Lord’s Supper will be observed not as an imitation of the Last Supper, even though its biblical warrant references that Holy Meal. The Eucharist has also a post-resurrection emphasis, as the meals Jesus shared with his followers at Emmaus and elsewhere, and as the Heavenly Banquet awaiting us all. Sensitivity to this movement of the service will enable planners and leaders to guide worshippers into a rich experience of the full dimensions of life as followers of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

What hymns would you pick for the Sundays in Lent? What other music would be appropriate to both emphases? What weekday worship experiences during Lent do you have in your church?

*Unlike the Sundays of Advent that are counted as part of the season. Advent, in fact, is measured by the four Sundays prior to Christmas, making the season of different lengths from year to year.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

No Shortcuts

One of my seminary professors used to challenge us regularly with an admonition to the effect that we ought to spend as much or more time and energy in writing our prayers addressed to God as we do preparing a sermon addressed to mere humans.

At the time, I thought that made eminent good sense and was worthy of sincere effort. When in the throes of being a pastor, however, before long I was looking for shortcuts.

Even using the Book of Common Worship (1993), or other printed resources, and doing it exclusively, without adapting them or rewriting to fit the immediate situation, can prevent growth in one’s own liturgical development.

It’s a slippery slope, for it is oh so easy to make a habit of cutting corners. It can even become an addiction.

Pastors are busy people, if they are any good at what they do. For openers, pastors are “ministers of Word and Sacrament.” This means that their two major responsibilities are proclaiming the Word (by which we usually mean study and preparation for preaching) and administering the sacraments (in which we usually include planning and preparation for worship in all its expressions).

Pastors, however get other assignments as well. Parishioners do not always see “Word and Sacrament” as primary, and foist off on the pastor many other tasks and responsibilities that do not require a seminary education. A friend of mine said that many church members view the pastor as their “spiritual concierge.” I remember, for example, getting a phone call one evening from a church member seeking the phone number of another member. As I reached for my directory, I asked the caller if she needed one, to which she replied, “Oh, no, I have one, but it’s downstairs and I thought you’d know the number.”

So the first thing pastors need to do is make it clear as plate glass that liturgical responsibilities are at the top of their list. Lots of tasks are put on the pastors list that anyone else could (and should) do. Such chores just steal from preparation for worship, and make shortcuts all the more tempting.

Musicians who work in our churches are also busy people. Often they are primarily employed elsewhere with other demands on their time. So there may also be pressures applied to musicians to do things the easy way.

Pastors and musicians, in this regard are in the same boat. So, in order to avoid being seduced by shortcuts, high on the list of “To Do” items should be time for pastor and musician to meet each week.

Here’s a quick list for their joint agenda:

1. The Christian Year. Constant reference to the progress of the church year is important, especially as the Gospel of Jesus Christ is revealed through the days and seasons. Where the coming Sunday stands in that annual progression is worthy of note.

2. The Scripture. Reading together the lectionary texts is a good preamble to planning for worship—not only for the next Sunday, but previous ones and especially those coming up next.

3. Themes. Seasonal themes and those that surface in the Scripture are identified. It’s helpful to note those to be celebrated this week and in the next weeks.

4. Music. The meeting should move to the piano or organ, so pastor and musician can sample potential hymns, service music, and anthems that amplify themes and messages of the Scripture.

5. The Order. Finally, the pastor and musician should talk through the order of service, looking at the flow of the service, the integrity of music and message.

Always pastor and musician must be aware that every worship service is unique. Each week the world changes, parishioners present last week are absent, and vice versa, and they have changed in conviction or circumstance. One-size-fits-all liturgy does not work. Yet that’s the most common shortcut taken—exclusively using printed prayer texts, for example, written by someone else in a different time and place for a different assembly of people.

That brings me back to my seminary professor’s challenge—to create the liturgy anew, and afresh, each week, for this congregation in this time and place. Praising God demands the very best of us, our best sermon, our most beautiful music, our most authentic liturgy. Please, no shortcuts.

How do your church musician and pastor plan for Sunday worship? Are others involved in planning with them? What other matters should they be worrying about?