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’”?