Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Faulty Assumptions

From time to time we do well to step back and take a long look at what we’re up against when we talk about “the renewal of worship.” Drifting around among the folks in the pews are assumptions that cause considerable mischief. They’ve been around for some time, generations perhaps, and if left unchallenged will thwart every effort to make sense of worship, understand it logically, not to mention theologically.

So here are the assumptions I hear people make that are faulty in one way or another, and how they need to be corrected and directed from their errant ways. They are in no particular order of priority—none is more wrong than any other.

“Worship is strictly between me and God, so I don’t need to be in church.” I had a parishioner who, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, admitted he’d been playing golf rather than coming to service the previous Sunday. His self-justification went something like, “I can worship God on the golf course just as well as here.” To which I replied, “While I’ve heard plenty of theological language on the golf course, it doesn’t seem quite the same thing.”

What is missing is the community of faith, the assembly of people around the grace of God. Worship—all worship—is a corporate activity. And we learn about the collective character of Christian worship by experiencing it with others. Even when we are separated for a time, our individual prayers are rooted in the gathered prayers of our faith community, wherever that may be. This does not mean that worship is not personal—even when we are gathered in prayer, our peculiar joys and concerns are lifted to God.

“Worship is at my initiative, when and how I want.” Lots of folks think that it’s all up to them whether they need to worship God or not. It’s their choice, and they call all the shots.

Of course, they’ve got it all back end forwards. God is the one who takes the initiative, who in sheer indiscriminate grace calls us to be God’s precious people. We respond. Our response takes place only when we acknowledge God’s invitation to worship. It’s easy for any of us to slip into this one, as though our response is because we’re good people and that makes us God’s people.

“Worship is where I go to feel good.” Feel-good worship is available in lots of places these days, and there’s always the temptation to try to lure people through the doors with a soft sell approach. It’s free on television. The good news is peddled without demands, requirements, expectations or anything that suggests change or improvement of actions or ethics. The old saying is absolutely true: “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” The Good News of Jesus Christ carries in it the bad news of repentance and renewal. The Gospel is a challenge, no doubt about it.

“Worship in my tradition is the right/only way to worship.” Of late, we Christians have tended to tuck ourselves tightly into our own ways of doing things. We ignore other Christian sisters and brothers who do things differently because we secretly think we’ve got it down right, and, well, they have the right to do whatever they want. The evaporation of ecumenism among local churches has not allowed us the privilege of sharing worship and learning from one another. So the church is afflicted with a kind of liturgical chauvinism, and our worship falls into the pit of pride.

“Worship is relaxing because someone else does everything.” There are folks who think that the worship leaders and presiders do all the work and they can put their feet on the handlebars and coast. For them, worship is a passive affair. Such an attitude toward worship is a sure prelude to boredom. If anyone is looking for worship to be entertaining, they will not themselves be involved in the liturgy (translate: “Work of the People”). Worship done well is an active experience for one and all.

“Worship is just one of many things a church offers—I do other things, and that’s enough.” So what the gathered people of God do on a Sunday morning is just one item on the list, and if someone teaches children, or engages in a service project for the church or community, they have license to skimp on worship attendance.

What is askew here, however, is that worship is The Core Activity of the church, from which all other things get empowered. Teachers learn by their own worship what they are to teach others. Servants are motivated to serve by the risen Christ who serves them at the Table.

Well, this is a start. I suspect that there are more faulty assumptions about worship that need to be exposed. If you have some to add, or other examples of these, please comment.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"You're (Not) Welcome"

Not long ago I received an email from a long-time friend about a disturbing experience. He and his wife had attended the confirmation of their nephew in a Roman Catholic church in Delaware. They read in the printed bulletin “instructions that non-Catholics were not allowed to share in the Eucharist, as the bishop, priests and congregation sang joyful songs of welcoming others to the sacrament.” For them, it was a very painful experience.

I’m sorry to report that their experience is more common than we’d like. I’ve been to family funerals where we were told to our faces (not just in print) we were not welcome at the table. Most discomfiting and frustrating was the time the Protestant brother-in-law of the deceased woman was forbidden to read a passage of Scripture, even though it was at her specific request. And, of course, the Table was “fenced” to keep Protestant family members away.

Although I’ve touched on this subject at least twice before,* there is more to be said. Quite simply and clearly, the Eucharist is the Lord’s Supper. To prevent anyone from coming to the Table is contrary to the hospitality displayed by our Lord himself on numerous occasions, without restrictions.

Unfortunately, Roman Catholics officially see it differently. Apparently the Eucharist is the church’s sacrament, so they can decide who may come to the meal. Points I’ve heard priests make on this subject are: 1) Obviously we Protestants don’t understand the Lord’s Supper at all or else we’d celebrate it every week; and 2) One does not come to the table without adequate preparation, which is provided only by the church, to which we Protestants don’t belong, and don’t understand.

Regarding point 1), they aren’t all wrong there. If we really took the Eucharist seriously, we would be celebrating it weekly. Our infrequency doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t understand the Eucharist.

Shortly after Vatican II, I was asked to speak at a retreat held at a local Roman Catholic retreat center about “The Protestant View of the Lord’s Supper.” I was paired with a local Roman Catholic priest who would speak after me, so as to correct any heresies I might espouse.

I decided I’d give the straightforward Presbyterian view, a la Donald M. Baillie’s, A Theology of the Sacraments. I remember emphasizing our understanding of the “real presence of Christ in the sacrament.” When I had finished, the priest stood up and said, “But that’s what we believe!”

This is not to say that there aren’t differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics concerning the Lord’s Supper. It does suggest, though, that there are some strong theological similarities, and it is those similarities that we ought to be stressing.

So, what to do about the predominant Roman Catholic attitude and rejection of Protestants at the Communion Table? Several approaches might be considered:

First, sadness is a more appropriate reaction to such table-fencing than is anger. Sorrow at being separated from one another at the Table is more likely to be heard by our Roman friends than rage at the rejection. We do need to talk about the restriction, when it happens, with lay and clergy both.

Second, we Protestants should not be bashful about taking communion in Roman Catholic churches. If we listen carefully to the words of the liturgy, and we hear Christ calling us to the Table, then we should go. We can ask our hosts “how they feel about our taking Communion” and see what kind of answer we get.

But if we are told in print or to our faces that we are not welcome, it’s not a good idea to give offence deliberately and embarrass friends. Let’s keep dialogue on the subject open and friendly.

Third, we Protestants need to get our act together about the Lord’s Supper, see it for the central act of Christian worship that it is, along with proclamation of the Word, and learn how to celebrate it more faithfully.

Fourth, Roman Catholics are not the only ones who “fence” the Lord’s Table. Some Protestant and free churches limit attendance to their own denominational or church members. We would do well to make the same efforts with other non-Catholics to share the Holy Meal with them.

Whenever and wherever it takes place, the alienation experienced by diverse Christians at the Lord’s Table is tragic. The Church of Jesus Christ cannot afford such fragmentation in times when unity is so desperately needed.

How frequently does your church celebrate Communion? Have you experienced rejection at the Lord’s Table in Roman Catholic or other churches? Have you had conversations with members or clergy about such experiences?

* See “One Table” (Feb. 27, 2011) and “Open Table” (March 27, 2011)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Reformed" Worship

Some words, especially when used as an adjective, can be dangerous, as is the case with “reformed” when used as a modifier of “worship.”

The danger is, of course, that it implies that worship, when carried out by those in the Reformed Tradition, is utterly circumscribed by the theological dogma produced in the 16th Century. The word “Reformed” brands the liturgy, and confines, constricts and otherwise inhibits the worship of the people. Such labeling neglects basic concepts that are part and parcel of worship as conceived and carried out in Presbyterian and other reformed congregations.

The Protestant Reformers came up with a wonderful idea about five centuries ago. They captured it in a slogan: “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.” This is usually translated, “The church reformed, always being reformed.” This is the principle of on-going reform, refreshment and renewal of worship.

Worship is not static but dynamic. Any attempt to crystallize worship into the one-size-fits-all people and occasions usually results in fossilizing it instead. From Sunday to Sunday the people change and so may the conditions and situations surrounding them—therefore, for example, the service that “worked” last Christmas Eve in all likelihood would be out of sync if used word for word and note for note the next Christmas Eve. As we find ourselves beset by changes, so our worship of the Almighty will find fresh expression.

Also, because our worship is reformed, planners and preparers will take into account the full history and tradition of Christian worship. We are not liturgical orphans, but have a spiritual DNA and voluminous records of our family of faith to inform us when we praise and thank God. Sometimes our reform of worship means remembering some of what we have too easily forgotten.

Often we act as though “history” means what can be brought up by living memory. Especially this is true in congregations who have “always” sung certain hymns and not others, or who insist on reciting the “traditional” Lord’s Prayer.

Because we have a liturgical past, we are delivered from the madness of re-inventing everything for the sake of novelty. If we only knew, we’d be surprised to discover that much of what is conjured up and proclaimed as the latest and greatest has been around for centuries. Rediscovering the old, however, can be as refreshing and vitalizing as venturing forth where none has gone before.

Those who are concerned for good liturgy tend to be conservative, in the best sense of the word. They like to preserve liturgical traditions, with thoughtful up-dating and re-shaping. The world of the twenty-first century is a long way from the first three centuries, yet much that was fashioned for Christian worship in the beginning is helpful to us today in appropriating ancient principles for contemporary worship. Furthermore, what has persisted over the centuries and is still used and useful to today’s people in the pews should be taken seriously. What is solid makes a good place to stand for moving ahead.

Reformed worship also has an ecumenical aspect to it. While the Protestant Reformers wanted to reclaim the fullness of Christian tradition in its purity, the liturgical practice of Reformed churches has not done it justice.

We who worship in the Reformed tradition need to remember that, just as liturgical history did not begin “when our pastor arrived,” it also goes back far beyond even 1514, and reaches far beyond the boundaries of the United States or even Europe. We should realize how dependent we are on traditions that have made emphases far different from ours. In the interest of making our worship the best Christian worship that we can, we should be alert to insights and contributions from other Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches. Thus we are called to account to the larger tradition of the whole church, and from this dynamic tension we are nudged into continuing liturgical reformation.

Referring back to the Reformation slogan, you’ll notice that we are “the church, always being reformed.” Renewal of worship, just as the renewal of the church, is not something we accomplish either on our own initiative or by our own strength. No matter how hard we yank on our own bootstraps, we’re not likely to get far off the floor and hover there. Renewal, real reform, comes from the Spirit. Therefore, worship that is truly “being reformed” in the sense of the slogan will come forth from a prayerful theological process into which the Spirit is welcomed.

What in your congregation’s worship needs to “be reformed”? What do you find in Roman Catholic or Orthodox worship, or that of other Protestants that would enrich your worship? What do you know of Muslim of Jewish worship that might inform your Christian worship?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Sensitive Subject

For some twenty-five years, the congregation I served had a remarkable relationship with a neighboring synagogue. From time to time, members from both places would assemble to study Scripture or debate the role of faith in public issues. At least annually there were opportunities for the clergy to swap pulpits and the congregants to worship together in each other’s liturgical homes.

In preparing for the services which we knew would include our Jewish friends, we were self-conscious at first. Obviously they would not acknowledge Jesus as we do, so the temptation was to edit our services to minimize the awkwardness.

In picking hymns, for example, we thought that “The God of Abraham Praise” would be a good choice, or maybe “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” rather than an explicitly Christ-centered song.

Or maybe we’d think about phrasing the prayers differently, instead of “in the name of Jesus Christ” we might say instead “in the Lord’s name.”

All this in an effort to be nice and not offensive to our Jewish friends.

The first time we did such a worship-exchange, however, we discovered that this was one big mistake. Such editing, to our Jewish friends, was considered to be disingenuous. As one member of the synagogue put it, “When we come to your place, we expect to experience your worship, not some watered-down version that’s been altered to please us. If you do that, we won’t trust you.”

I remember talking to the rabbi on another occasion about the liturgical fad in some Christian churches to refer to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Scriptures. He gave me a bit of a scowl and said, “To us they are ‘Hebrew Scriptures’—they’re your ‘Old Testament’. Why would you ever want to use our term? Keep them straight.”

Candor in worship is essential. We are who we are, and when we worship with people of other faiths, even with other Christians, we do well to be our true selves. We can do that both honestly and graciously.

I was reminded of all this when I saw “A Note on the Readings” in the Good Friday Service bulletin of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston. It started out, “Of all the worship services in the Christian year, the Good Friday liturgy poses some of the most difficult and painful problems for us in our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters. That is a special concern in our use of the story of Christ’s Passion as told in John’s Gospel. John refers repeatedly to ‘the Jews’ as those who ultimately are responsible for putting Jesus to death.”

The note continues with two explanations: The suggestion by some scholars that John placed more “blame” on the Jews because it was more prudent than blaming the Romans; and that John’s reference to “the Jews” was only to a small group of Jewish leaders.

The note concludes: “In short, ‘the Jews’ in John’s account are you and I, or those parts of all of us, who out of self-protection, hard-heartedness, and fear of change or surrender, deny our Lord.”

It struck me that there was in all likelihood not one Jew in the room that Good Friday to read the note. It was clearly addressed to the people there that afternoon, and to every Christian. I hoped that the worshippers would snatch up an extra bulletin or two on the way out and use them as opportunities for discussion with their Jewish friends.

Furthermore, I was impressed by the candor of the note in acknowledging a problem, or a potential one, and trying to head it off at the pass. This is not a small issue, either, in our relationships with Jews, and the leaders at Trinity Church know it.

The explanations given were not apologies but acknowledgements. The honesty of the note was rock-hard in its admission that John may have been scapegoating the Jews to save his and other Christians’ skins. There was no disingenuousness that suggested the note was saying one thing and meaning another.

It is only with this kind of clarification and candor that worship can take place “in spirit and in truth”. In this day and age it is increasingly important that we Christians reach out to others in shared worship and common prayer—especially with our Jewish and Muslim cousins, descendants as we are of Abraham. We should be a straightforward and guile free as possible.

Does your congregation have opportunities to worship with congregants of local synagogues or mosques? Does your congregation have opportunities to welcome Jews and Muslims to your worship? Have you experienced pulpit exchanges with rabbis and imams?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Putting in a Substitute

A new experience awaited me this morning at the neighborhood Lutheran church I often attend.

Today was the Second Sunday of Easter, and, said the pastor, it would be appropriate to exercise the option in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship to substitute “Thanksgiving for Baptism” for “Confession and Forgiveness.” He told me after the service that he intended to continue the switch through the Season of Easter.

It has long been customary in the Lutheran tradition to begin worship with a straightforward prayer of confession and the affirmation of God’s forgiveness. Luther was one who wanted the confessional to go public, so that we admit what is haywire in our lives not only in relative privacy to God, but also publically in front of one another.

In the Lutheran liturgy such a confessional exercise is at the top of the order, the very first thing that transpires, led either from the entrance to the church or from the baptismal font. This is unlike the usual placement of confession of sin and forgiveness in Presbyterian orders, either after all are gathered and a hymn is sung at the beginning, or following the intercessions immediately before the Eucharist.

In place of the confession of sin, the pastor, standing at the baptismal font, invoked the Trinity making the sign of the cross, and continued with the “Thanksgiving for Baptism”:

Joined to Christ in the waters of baptism,
we are clothed with God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Let us give thanks for the gift of baptism.
Water may be poured into the font as the presiding minister gives thanks.
We give you thanks, O God,
for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters
and by your Word you created the world,
calling forth life in which you took delight.
Through the waters of the flood
you delivered Noah and his family.
Through the sea you led your people Israel
from slavery into freedom.
At the river your Son was baptized by John
and anointed with the Holy Spirit.
By water and your Word
you claim us as daughters and sons,
making us heirs of your promise
and servants of all.
We praise you for the gift of water that sustains life,
and above all we praise you for
the gift of new life in Jesus Christ.
Shower us with your Spirit,
and renew our lives with your forgiveness, grace, and love.
To you be given honor and praise
through Jesus Christ our Lord
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Remembering our baptisms at the beginning of the worship service is certainly an appropriate liturgical action. In this instance, the pastor indicated that it fit the Easter Season especially, since in baptism we die in Christ and are raised with him to new life.

Furthermore, starting with celebrating one’s baptism is certainly a more positive and affirmative opening to worship than the negative aura of confessing one’s sins openly. Following upon Lent, a season heavy with repentance and discipline, it is certainly more up-beat to acknowledge in the season of resurrection the positive claim God has on our lives by virtue of our baptism.

Baptism is also the “basic ordination” of the Christian, by which we are set to the business of being the Body of Christ, the Church, in the world. Starting worship from the font with that focus on whose we are and who we are to be is a strong opening for our praise of God.

At least, I suspect that is something of the rationale for this substitution, and it all makes sense. Replacing the confession of sin with thanksgiving for baptism, however, left me with a different impression.

Without some of the humility that comes with confession, launching the service with thanks for being baptized and all the blessings that baptism involves does sound a bit self-congratulatory. It also has the ring of exclusiveness, suggesting that perhaps this worship service is for baptized people only. Furthermore, the whole tone of the thanksgiving for baptism here is that the people are merely passive recipients of God’s grace, and there is no responsibility that goes with it except to say thanks to God.

Rather than a mere thanks to God for our baptisms, better to have a renewal of baptismal vows—a variety of such liturgies are available in the Book of Common Worship (1993). Then baptism is not celebrated passively, but commitments are renewed and activated again.

Both the confession of sin and the reaffirmation of baptismal vows provide a combined emphasis on renewal of our lives. We are sinners, forgiven by the grace of God, and claimed by baptism to live out the new life we have received by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit.

Do you have a prayer of confession at the beginning of your Sunday worship? Does the presider or leader lead the prayer of confession from the baptismal font? Does your congregation make use of the liturgies for reaffirming baptismal vows? If so, when?